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Iowa Court Ruling Emphasizes Proper Compliance with State Drug Testing Law

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Employers drug testing employees in Iowa are well advised to review a recent ruling from the Iowa Court of Appeals. In this decision, the court reversed in part the lower court’s ruling that granted summary judgment in favor of the employer finding genuine issues of material fact remained on several claims. 

Case Background

The plaintiff in this case is a former employee who had been one of the “company’s most successful salespeople” working for the employer since 2006. Starting in 2008, and periodically thereafter, the plaintiff signed an agreement to abide by the employer’s controlled substance policy and submit to drug testing. 

The most recent version of the employee handbook acknowledged by the plaintiff stated that random drug and alcohol testing will be done monthly in compliance with Iowa law. Such testing would be done by the employer’s drug testing provider, or another provider who operates in compliance with the law including maintaining a Medical Review Officer. Any refusal to submit to testing could result in suspension with or without pay, termination, refusal to hire, rehabilitation or other adverse employment action.

The employer’s human resources director acquired a list of randomly selected employees from the drug testing provider which included 15 individuals to be tested and 8 alternates but did not take into account if the employees were scheduled to work on the day of the random drug test or not. The plaintiff was one of the alternates. 

On the day of the random drug test, the plaintiff reported to work and was told he needed to go upstairs for the drug test. He provided a urine sample which was rejected by the HR director due to being “out of temperature.” He then drank more water and tried again. The HR director rejected the second sample as there was not enough urine. She then told the plaintiff he needed to stay, drink more water, and attempt to produce again. At this point, the plaintiff told her he needed to go home because his daughter was sick and he wasn’t supposed to be drug tested as he wasn’t on the list. As noted in the court’s opinion, the HR director informed him that if he left, he would be fired. 

After weighing his options, the plaintiff left but later emailed the company’s president offering to go back to the facility and submit to another test. The employer terminated him citing his refusal to complete a random drug test. Despite this, the plaintiff paid for and took a second drug test the next day which was negative. The plaintiff then filed suit against the employer and drug testing provider.

Court’s Decision

While upholding the summary judgment motion in favor of the drug testing provider, the court determined three claims against the employer needed to be revisited by the lower court. 

First, the court took issue with the random selection process of the entire population at the worksite. The employer included all active employeesnot just those scheduled to be at the worksite the day of the random test. On the day of the test, the employer then skipped employees who were on the list that were not present at work for whatever reason. The court determined further analysis was needed to determine if the employer substantially complied with this portion of Iowa’s drug testing law. 

Next, the court found there to be a potential issue over whether the employer’s supervisor training complied with the law. As alleged by the plaintiff, the only supervisor involved in the testing did not complete required initial training and sufficient annual training. The court reviewed the training certificates completed by the supervisor finding the training content to be potentially deficient as it may not have covered all topics required by the law. If the employer “did not substantially comply with [this requirement], then the testing was not statutorily authorized and [the plaintiff] would not have lost his job but for the illegal test.” 

Finally, the court reviewed the employer’s drug testing policy and the associated disciplinary actions that may be taken. The plaintiff alleged the discretion in discipline outlined in the policy violated the state’s drug testing law. The court sided with the plaintiff on this item noting the Iowa law requires uniform requirements for what actions the employer “shall” take. Further, the court found a question of fact existed as to whether the plaintiff was harmed by this violation based on how two other employees who were tested the same day were treated.

Takeaways

As the court noted in the opening of its opinionthe devil is in the details. Employers should review this case with qualified legal counsel to determine if any changes are needed to workplace drug testing policies, procedures, or staff training. 

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