Court Upholds Employee Termination Following Positive Alcohol Test

Posted: March 16, 2016

Positive Alcohol Test

On March 1, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi upheld an employee’s termination following a positive alcohol test.1 Case Background The plaintiff was originally hired by the defendant as a line cook, eventually becoming a specialty room chef. Throughout the time of her employment, the defendant employer had a substance and alcohol abuse and testing policy in effect. This policy subjected employees to drug and alcohol tests following an on-the-job injury or illness. Employees who tested positive for drugs or alcohol were terminated. In 2013, the plaintiff tripped over a pipe, fractured her right ankle and was taken to a clinic. While being examined for the injury, the clinic obtained blood and urine samples for testing pursuant to the defendant’s policy. The testing facility reported the plaintiff’s urine sample tested positive for alcohol at the level of .12%; however, the blood sample tested negative for alcohol. After receiving the test results, the defendant contacted the plaintiff to inquire about any existing medications to determine if there had been a false positive. The testing facility confirmed the test results would not be impacted by the diabetes medication and noted that urine tests for alcohol are more accurate than blood tests. While the plaintiff was on medical leave for the ankle injury, the defendant terminated her employment based on the violation of the company’s zero-tolerance drug and alcohol policy. Following the termination, the plaintiff filed suit for ADA/ADAAA violations claiming the termination was really the result of her disability – the ankle injury. Court Ruling First, the court addressed whether the ADA was applicable in this case, and determined that the plaintiff’s injuries did not substantially limit major life activities to a sufficient enough degree to warrant a prima facie case for an ADA violation.2 Setting aside the ADA finding, the court determined the defendant demonstrated a “legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for termination” based on the fact that previous employees who tested positive were terminated and that employees were notified of the policy and consequences via an employee manual. Further, the court cited the defendant’s attempts to determine if the test was a false positive, providing the plaintiff a benefit of the doubt before terminating her employment. Accordingly, the court granted the defendant summary judgment, dismissing the plaintiff’s claims. Medical Marijuana Cases In addition to this case, several courts in recent months have upheld an employer’s right to terminate an individual for medical marijuana use. One such case arose from the District of New Mexico, following an employer’s termination of an employee who used medical marijuana (upon a doctor’s recommendation) to help with his HIV/AIDS condition which is protected by the New Mexico Human Rights Act.3 The employee was also issued a Patient Identification Card through the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Program authorized by the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act. In this case, the plaintiff advised the employer of his diagnosis and medical marijuana use during an initial employment interview. After being hired for the position, the plaintiff submitted to a drug test which tested positive for marijuana, and was then subsequently terminated based on the test results. The court analyzed two matters: 1) whether the employer had liability taking into account the Compassionate Use Act combined with the Human Rights Act and 2) whether the Federal Controlled Substances Act preempts New Mexico state law. First, the court noted that New Mexico’s medical marijuana law does not require employer accommodation. Moreover, the plaintiff’s termination was not a result of his medical condition, but a result of his positive test for marijuana. Accordingly, the court determined the Compassionate Use Act and New Mexico Human Rights Act were not applicable. Further, the court stated that to hold otherwise would likely require the defendant (who operates in 49 states) to modify their drug-free workplace policy on a state-by-state basis depending on marijuana laws. Next, the court found that requiring an employer to accommodate marijuana use in the workplace under state law is preempted by the Federal Controlled Substances Act. Based on these findings, the court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss. The New Mexico court ruling is in line with numerous other recent cases including those in Washington and Colorado. Summary The above cases demonstrate the importance of thorough substance abuse policies that are clearly communicated to employees – especially for employers operating in states with medical or recreational marijuana laws. Additionally, employers should ensure that any policy is consistently applied and afford employees a chance to explain the results before taking adverse employment action. Employers are encouraged to consult with qualified legal counsel to review whether their policies and practices are sufficient to meet applicable state and federal requirements. 1 See Clark v. Boyd Tunica, Inc., Case: 3:14-cv-00204-MPM-JMV (N.D. Miss. March 1, 2016). 2 The plaintiff’s doctor cleared her return to work within 5 months, the break was not particularly severe and there was no evidence that any permanent or long-term impact existed. Further, the court noted that case law did not support a finding that a broken foot qualified as a disability. 3 See, Garcia v. Tractor Supply Co., Case No. CV 15-00735 WJ/WPL (D.N.M. Jan. 7, 2016).