Drug Screens

Post-Accident Drug Testing Prompts ADA Questions

A jury will have to decide whether an employer's post-accident drug testing constitutes a "disability-related inquiry" in violation of the ADA.
By: | September 19, 2014

A window manufacturer could be forced to pay a large jury award and punitive damages because of its drug testing policies. A U.S. appeals court has sent the case back to a lower court to determine whether the employer’s tests violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The case, Bates, et al. v. Dura Automotive Systems Inc., presents a cautionary tale for employers seeking to prevent workplace injuries through drug screening. While the federal District Court had ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, the appellate court’s decision leaves the fate of the employer in the hands of a jury.

The Case

Testing the boundaries of what constitutes a medical examination or disability-related inquiry, Dura’s drug testing policy requiring disclosure of prescription medications raised questions that should be decided by a jury, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said. In reversing the ruling by the U.S. District Court, Middle District of Tennessee that the ADA prohibited the testing, the appeals court said the key issue was whether Dura’s test was designed to reveal an impairment or information about the employee’s health. Determining that a jury could go either way on the question, the appeals court sent the case back to District Court.

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Specifically, the higher court reversed, vacated, and remanded the portion of the lower court’s judgment on employees’ ADA Title I claims against Dura related to testing for legal prescriptions that had machine-operation warnings. The higher court reversed the district court’s conclusion that the drug-testing protocol was a medical exam or disability-related inquiry and vacated a related punitive damages award, with one judge dissenting (see box).

According to the appeals court, it was for a jury to determine whether the testing would reveal medical conditions or was narrowly focused enough to avoid discriminating against employees who take prescription drugs.

Under Equal Employment Opportunity Commission definitions, a “medical examination” is a procedure or test that seeks information about an individual’s physical or mental impairments or health. One of the factors bearing on this determination is whether the test is designed to reveal an impairment or information about employees’ physical or mental health.

The appeals court saidit was not clear whether Dura’s testing to find out whether employees were taking machine-operation restricted prescriptions was a medical exam.

“The urine test itself revealed only the presence of chemicals,” the appeals court held. “No one suggests that the consumption of prescription medications containing these chemicals constitutes protected medical information (or even an ‘impairment’).”

Nonetheless, there was evidence of inconsistencies between Dura’s written and actual drug testing policies. The appeals court cited reports of Dura’s alleged disparate treatment of individual employees, which it said could “evince a pernicious motive.”

“For instance, one plaintiff … claims that [Dura] asked her directly about her prescription medications and fired her for not reporting them, and [Dura] allowed another plaintiff to return to work despite testing positive,” the appeals court explained.

There were also lingering questions about whether the testing amounted to a disability-related inquiry.

Weighing in Dura’s favor was how it used a third-party contractor to conduct the tests. Specifically, the appeals court explained that the test, which required positive-testing employees to disclose medications to the contractor who then relayed only machine-restricted medications to Dura, did not have to reveal information about a disability.

“[Dura’s] third-party administered test revealing only machine-restricted medications differs from directly asking employees about prescription-drug usage or monitoring the same,” the appeals court explained. It noted that EEOC guidance defines a “disability-related inquiry” as a “question (or series of questions) that is likely to elicit information about a disability.”

The employees argued that the test was designed to seek information on possible weaknesses in workers and then exclude them from the workplace. But the appeals court held that a jury could conclude that Dura was trying to avoid gathering information about employees’ disabilities. Still, it noted that the testing went further than what the ADA’s drug test exemption for illegal drugs permitted.

Throughout its five-year history, the case has tested various provisions of the ADA.

In 2010, the appeals court held that only individuals with qualifying disabilities under the ADA could pursue a claim under a provision that prohibits employers from using qualification standards, employment tests, and other selection criteria that screen out individuals with disabilities.

In other words, employees in the case without disabilities could not establish that they came under the protections of that section of the law, and the appeals court held that the district court incorrectly classified their claims under that provision.

The Dissent

One appeals court judge in Bates, et al. v. Dura Automotive Systems Inc.,disagreed with the majority’s view of medical exams and disability-related inquiries.

“Some of the terminated employees provided [Dura] with doctor’s notes stating that the use of their prescription medication did not affect work performance,” Circuit Judge Julia Smith Gibbons wrote. “[Dura], however, refused to allow these employees to return to work unless they discontinued their medications regardless of whether the medications had any real likelihood of affecting their ability to perform the job safely.”

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In Gibbons’ view, this tipped the scales toward a finding of discrimination because it disregarded medical advice.

Additionally, Gibbons felt that the majority took a “cramped view” of EEOC guidance on whether a test is designed to reveal an impairment of physical or mental health.

“An employer’s purpose in using a particular test must be considered in its ‘larger factual context,’” she explained. “In this case, that larger factual context includes how [Dura] used the test results.”

Gibbons also maintained that the tests had to be considered alongside Dura’s blanket-firing policy.

She questioned why the manufacturer would disregard the employees’ doctors who stated that the employees could perform their jobs safely in spite of their prescriptions.

Nancy Grover is the president of NMG Consulting and the Editor of Workers' Compensation Report, a publication of our parent company, LRP Publications. She can be reached at [email protected]

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]