A district court upheld a company’s random alcohol and drug testing policy on February 20 that the the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission contended did not fall under the “business necessity exception” to the Americans with Disabilities Act’s broad ban on workplace medical examinations.
In February 2008, Abigail DeSimone a new employee at a U.S. Steel Corp. in Clairton, Pennsylvania was fired after failing a breathalyzer test done pursuant to the company’s mandatory random alcohol and drug testing policy. Though DiSemone had not consumed any alcohol in the previous month, as the positive test was due to her diabetes, she nonetheless was dismissed.
After receiving DeSimone’s complaint and investigating the plant, the EEOC filed a lawsuit against U.S. Steel in September 2010.
Under the ADA, employers are barred from conducting workplace medical examainations unless they are “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” The ban was enacted to prevent employers from relying on stereotypes and misconceptions when analyzing the employment potential of people with disabilities.
Relying on this language, the EEOC contended that drug tests done in a random fashion are per se invalid because employers should have an “individualized, reasonable suspicion of safety concern” prior to conducting the test.
The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania disagreed, finding that considering the dangerous working conditions at the plant, the random drug tests were reasonably related to the company’s safety interests to fall under the exception.
“There is no room for error when the dangers are as numerous and serious as in a coke plant,” the court stated in the 47-page decision. “Any lapse in concentration can be catastrophic…The need for random testing is obvious in light of the difficulty of singling out employees who are under the influence of alcohol while on the job.”
The court, which called the issue a “novel question of law,” highlighted concerns in the ADA’s legislative history regarding the effect of medical examination restrictions in other fields of employment with high safety risks, such as with police officers and firefighters.
However, the court also made an effort to limit the scope of its decision, noting that its ruling was limited to the circumstances of the case.
“Requiring employers to have objective evidence of impairment may make sense in an office setting, where supervisors can clearly see if their employees are exhibiting abnormal behavior or smell of alcohol,” the court stated. “This requirement makes no sense in the context of an industrial production facility like the Clairton Coke Plant, where employees are covered from head to toe in protective clothing and equipment.”
DeSimone individually settled her lawsuit with the company in March 2012.