A recent decision from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals illustrates the limits of employers’ obligations to accommodate employee disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Stevens v. Rite Aid Corp. involved a pharmacist who suffered from trypanophobia: fear of needles. He alleged that Rite Aid violated the ADA by terminating him when he refused to provide vaccinations, instead of accommodating his disability. A jury awarded him $2.6 million in lost wages and compensatory damages.
On appeal, the Second Circuit reversed the verdict, concluding that the jury had misapplied the ADA’s accommodation requirements. At trial, the plaintiff contended that Rite Aid could have accommodated his phobia in two ways. First, the company could have paid for desensitization therapy intended to allow him to overcome his fear of needles. Second, he argued that Rite Aid could have reorganized the store’s pharmacists into a team structure, where certain functions such as vaccinations were delegated to other employees.
The court quickly disposed of the plaintiff’s first accommodation. The ADA does not require employers to pay for employee medical treatment as an accommodation. While Rite Aid could have been required to accommodate the plaintiff’s treatment, it did not have to foot the bill for the therapy.
Second, the court said that the ADA never requires employers to remove essential job functions from an employee as a form of accommodation. Even if the pharmacy plausibly could function under a teamwork structure whereby the plaintiff would be relieved of vaccination duties, courts will not intervene to require employers to restructure their workplaces by changing their own reasonable determination of essential job functions.
Not all federal courts have explicitly rejected this teamwork approach toward ADA accommodations. Employers asked to provide disability accommodations should carefully articulate the essential job functions, as well as their conclusions why a requested accommodation is or is not compatible with their judgment as to that employee’s key job responsibilities.