Courts Place Limits on Drug Testing in Workplace, Schools 4/2/99

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3. Courts Place Limits on Drug Testing in Workplace, Schools

Scott Ehlers, Senior Policy Analyst, Drug Policy Foundation, [email protected],
Drug testing in the workplace and schools were given a setback in recent weeks thanks to the Supreme Court and a US District Court. Although neither case is precedent-setting, both cases could potentially effect how schools and private employers conduct their drug testing programs.

On March 22, the Supreme Court announced its denial to review Anderson Community School Corp. v. Willis (98-1183), in which it let stand a ruling by a three-judge panel in the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Appeals Court found the Anderson school district's policy of drug testing suspended high school students to be a violation of the students' privacy rights.

The case involved James Willis II, a freshman at Highland High School, who was suspended in December 1997 for five days for fighting. According to the school official who immediately saw Willis, there was no indication that he had been using alcohol or drugs.

The Anderson County policy required that all students suspended for three or more days to take a urine test in order to be reinstated. If the test detected alcohol or drug metabolites, then the student's parents and a designated school official would be notified, but no additional punishment would be inflicted.

Willis refused to take the drug test and sued the school district. A federal district court judge upheld the drug testing policy, but the 7th Circuit Court reversed the ruling, saying that drug testing must be restricted to disciplinary cases where students were individually suspected of using drugs or alcohol.

While the Supreme Court let the ruling stand, it has also upheld drug testing of students who wish to participate in extracurricular activities. In 1995, the Court ruled in Vernonia School District v. Acton that randomly drug testing student athletes did not violate their 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure. And last October, the Court let stand a ruling which found that the Rush County, Indiana school district did not violate students' rights when they required all students participating in any extracurricular activity -- from athletics to the chess club -- to be subjected to random drug testing.

In a very different case decided this week, Chief U.S. District Judge Sylvia H. Rambo found the drug testing policy of a Pennsylvania company to be a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The case, Rowles v. Automated Production Systems, was brought by John Rowles, an epileptic who takes an anticonvulsant, Dilantin, and Phenobarbital to control his seizures. After Rowles found out that the company's drug policy required him to disclose the use of prescription drugs and could result in his firing for taking Phenobarbital, a controlled substance, he refused to take the drug test. He was subsequently fired.

In Judge Rambo's decision, she noted that precedent had established that "at some point, an individual's privacy interests trump an employer's efficiency concerns," that APS's drug testing program was "highly offensive," and that private medical facts would be revealed by the drug testing process. She granted Rowles partial summary judgement under the ADA because APS had a policy of prohibiting the use of certain prescription drugs, even if their use had no effect on job performance.

Lewis Maltby, director of the ACLU's Workplace Rights Office, echoed Judge Rambo's reasoning and applauded her decision for protecting disabled workers: "What this company's drug testing policy did, in effect, was prohibit persons with certain disabilities from working for the company. It clearly violates the ADA."

Maltby went on to tell the Week Online, "Clearly this is an issue that the drug warriors did not think about. It exposes the inherent contradiction in drug testing by trying to distinguish between 'drugs' and 'medicines,' and the lack of distinction inevitably causes problems with the ADA. The only way to screen for people who don't use illegal drugs is to require them to disclose what prescription drugs they are using, which in turn is a potential ADA violation."

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Issue #85, 4/2/99 Announcements | Portland, Oregon Police Called to Account for Surveillance Operation | Two New Polls Show Strong Public Support for Drug Policy Reform | Courts Place Limits on Drug Testing in Workplace, Schools | Hash Bash Draws Ire of State Lawmakers | California Democrats Give Nod to Industrial Hemp | Government Reports: Prison, Drug Use Trends | ACLU: Financial Privacy Update | Editorial: Funding the Unknown Soldier

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