Trypanophobia—the fear of needles—played a significant role in a case brought against Rite Aid Pharmacy under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In Stevens v. Rite Aid Corp., the Second Circuit overturned a jury verdict awarding substantial damages to a Rite Aid pharmacist who was terminated after he said he could not perform immunization injections because of a needle phobia.

In 2011, Rite Aid and other large pharmacy chains started requiring pharmacists to perform immunizations to fill an unmet need for vaccinations in the healthcare market. Rite Aid revised its pharmacist job description to include immunizations as one of the essential duties and responsibilities for pharmacists and required that each pharmacist hold a valid immunization permit.

Pharmacist Christopher Stevens asserted that his needle phobia was a disability under the ADA and sought a reasonable accommodation so that he would not have to perform immunizations.  Rite Aid responded that the ADA did not apply to trypanophobia, no reasonable accommodation was required, and he would be fired if he did not complete immunization training. When Stevens advised Rite Aid he could not complete the training, he was terminated for refusing to perform customer immunizations, an essential function of his job.

The Second Circuit first noted that, under the ADA, an employee must be qualified to perform the essential functions of his job, with or without reasonable accommodation. Even viewing all evidence in the light most favorable to Stevens, the Court held that immunization injections were an essential job requirement for Rite Aid pharmacists. The company made a business decision to require pharmacists to perform immunizations, revised its job description to require immunization certification and licensure, and included immunizations in the list of “essential duties and responsibilities” for Rite Aid pharmacists. The Court found jury sympathy for Stevens’s phobia to be understandable, but held that “his inability to perform an essential function of his job as a pharmacist is the only conclusion that could be drawn from the evidence.”

The Court next determined that Stevens had not established that Rite Aid could have provided a reasonable accommodation, emphasizing that the issue was whether a reasonable accommodation would have allowed Stevens to perform the essential function of immunization, not whether he could perform his other non-immunization duties as a pharmacist.

The Second Circuit reversed the judgment in favor of Stevens, holding that performing immunization injections was an essential job requirement, and Stevens presented no evidence of a reasonable accommodation that would have allowed him to do them.

The Stevens case highlights two important points under the ADA. An employer’s written job description including the essential duties and responsibilities of a position can be strong evidence to support an ADA argument concerning the essential functions of the job. Moreover, a reasonable accommodation is directed to allowing the employee to perform the essential functions of the job, not simply finding other things that the employee can do.

The Second Circuit recently agreed to accept an interlocutory appeal to decide the question whether a violation of the False Claims Act’s “first-to-file” rule compels dismissal of the complaint or whether it can be cured by the filing of an amended pleading.

In United States ex rel. Wood v. Allergan, Inc., Relator John Wood brought FCA claims against Allergan, a pharmaceutical company that develops and manufactures eye care prescription drugs. Wood alleged that Allergan violated the FCA and the Anti-Kickback Statute by providing free drugs and other goods to physicians in exchange for them providing the company’s brand name drugs to Medicare and Medicaid patients.  SDNY District Judge Jesse Furman denied most of Allergan’s motion to dismiss in an 89-page decision, deciding several FCA first-to-file issues and certifying two for interlocutory appeal to the Second Circuit.

The Initial Qui Tam Complaint Violated the “First-to-File” Bar

The FCA’s “first-to-file” rule states that once a qui tam action has been brought, no person other than the Government may intervene or bring a related action based on the same facts. The primary purpose of the first-to-file rule is to help the Government uncover and fight fraud. The rule encourages prompt disclosure of fraud by creating a race to the courthouse among those with knowledge of the fraud.

Wood was not the first relator to bring FCA claims against Allergan for the alleged conduct. Two prior actions had been brought and were pending when the Wood qui tam complaint was filed. Therefore, at the time Wood’s qui tam complaint was filed, it ran afoul of the first-to-file bar and was subject to dismissal.

The Prior-filed Actions Were Dismissed Before Wood’s Action Was Unsealed and the Third Amended Complaint Was Filed

The Wood complaint, however, was under seal for several years, and Wood amended his complaint twice before the seal was lifted. While the Wood complaint remained under seal, the two prior actions were dismissed.  When the Government declined to intervene in the Wood action and the case was unsealed, there were no longer any prior-filed pending actions. Wood thereafter filed a third amended complaint. Allergan moved to dismiss on several grounds, including the “first-to-file” bar, arguing that when Wood’s initial qui tam complaint was filed, there were two pending actions alleging the same factual allegations.

The “First-to File” Bar Is Not Jurisdictional

Judge Furman first addressed whether the “first-to-file” bar is jurisdictional. Although the majority of circuit courts have held that it is, the district court’s holding in its March 31, 2017 decision that the bar is not jurisdictional foreshadowed the Second Circuit’s similar holding four days later, in United States ex rel. Hayes v. Allstate Insurance Co.  The Circuit in Hayes stated that the first-to-file rule provides that “no person other than the Government” may bring an FCA claim that is “related” to a claim already “pending.” The Court noted that the statutory language did not speak in jurisdictional terms or refer to the jurisdiction of the courts, in contrast to other sections of the FCA. As Congress is presumed to act intentionally when it includes jurisdictional language in one statutory section but omits it in another, the Court held the a court does not lack subject matter jurisdiction over an action barred on the merits by the non-jurisdictional first-to-file rule.

An Amendment After Dismissal of the Prior Action Can “Cure” a First-to-File Violation

The district court next addressed the question of whether the first-to-file bar required dismissal of Wood’s qui tam complaint. In Kellogg Brown & Root Services, Inc. v. United States ex rel. Carter, the Supreme Court had held that “an earlier [FCA] suit bars a later suit while the earlier suit remains undecided but ceases to bar that suit once it is dismissed.”  Wood therefore would be able to bring a new FCA claim as the two prior actions had been dismissed.

However, during the years that the case had been sealed, the statute of limitations had expired on most of Wood’s claims, so a dismissal without prejudice and a re-filing of his complaint would result in a dismissal of the claims on limitations grounds. The district court was therefore faced with a question the Supreme Court did not decide: whether a violation of the first-to-file bar can be “cured” by amending or supplementing the complaint in the later-filed action after dismissal of the earlier actions.

The district court held that first-to file violation can be cured by an amended or supplemented pleading.  The court noted that most courts answering this question in the negative had relied in large part on a conclusion that the first-to-file bar is jurisdictional. The district court in Wood, and later the Second Circuit, held that the bar is non-jurisdictional. The district court noted that courts routinely allow plaintiffs to cure violations of non-jurisdictional rules by amendment under Fed. R. Civ. P. 15. Also, allowing an amendment to cure a violation advances the primary purpose of the FCA, to permit the government to recover for fraud. The court opined that barring a relator in Wood’s position from curing his violation of the rule would undermine, rather than advance, the purposes of the FCA.

The Amendment Relates Back to the Date of the Original Complaint

The parties also disputed whether, for purposes of the statute of limitations, the relevant complaint was the initial complaint, filed when the prior actions were pending, or the third amended complaint, the first one filed after they had been dismissed. The court recognized that the “touchstone” of Rule 15 is whether the original pleading put the defendant on notice of the relevant claims, and that an FCA defendant is often not on notice of a qui tam complaint because it is under seal. Nevertheless, the court concluded that any such delay is beyond the relator’s control, and an otherwise diligent relator should not have claims stripped away when the government and not the relator is to blame for the defendant not receiving notice. The district court therefore held that the third amended complaint related back to the original complaint for limitations purposes.

The Second Circuit Will Address The First-to-File Issues

In August, the Second Circuit accepted the interlocutory appeal of two issues:

  1. Whether a violation of the FCA’s “first-to-file” rule requires dismissal or can be “cured” through the filing of a new pleading after the earlier-filed action has been dismissed; and
  2. If a violation of the first-to-file bar is curable, whether the FCA’s limitations period is measured from the date of the relator’s curative pleading or the original complaint.

Some of our colleagues at Farrell Fritz prepared an advisory with helpful information and links for families, individuals and businesses in need of disaster recovery assistance due to Hurricane Sandy or the subsequent storm.

We hope you weathered the storms safely.  Please do not hesitate to contact us if we can be of assistance in any way.