Employer Justified in Terminating Employee for Drug Test Refusal

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Over the past year or two, employers are seeing a wave of case law related to marijuana use, positive drug tests and employment impacts particularly on the east coast. While many of these decisions have gone against employers, those in Rhode Island may find some solace in a recent Supreme Court of Rhode Island ruling.
In May 2020, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island issued an opinion finding an employer was justified in terminating a medical marijuana user following his refusal to take a drug test. The case arose after an employee working as a “supply driver” suffered an injury to his right hand during a delivery made while on the clock. As alleged in the initial complaint, the employee (now plaintiff) reported the injury upon his return to the worksite and that the employer had no reasonable grounds to believe he was under the influence of any controlled substance.
Testimony by the plaintiff, supervisor and branch manager occurred in the lower court. During the plaintiff’s testimony, he acknowledged being a medical marijuana user for past injuries sustained during his service in the United States Army and claimed that he never used marijuana while at work or during working hours. He also claimed that he was “interrogated” by his supervisor and branch manager after reporting the injury and that he “got quite angry” after being told they thought he was impaired and needed to get tested. Ultimately, he refused the urinalysis drug test and admitted on cross-examination that he had sworn “excessively” during his conversation with the manager. Meanwhile during the supervisor’s testimony, he noted the plaintiff was acting weirdly, was “jumping all over the place” and that “something wasn’t quite right”. The branch manager’s testimony followed a similar line.
At the end of testimony, the trial justice entered a bench decision finding the employer had reasonable grounds to believe the plaintiff was under the influence. The plaintiff then appealed claiming there was no testimony that supported or indicated drug use and that his actions were the result of pain related to the injury suffered.
The Supreme Court determined that Rhode Island’s drug testing law does not require actual knowledge that the employee is definitely under the influence or that there are specific symptoms displayed. Instead, the law only requires that there are reasonable grounds for an employer to believe the individual is under the influence of a controlled substance. Therefore, the employer in this case was not required or expected to distinguish what actions could be due to pain versus being under the influence.
Based on that analysis, the Supreme Court determined the trial justice did not abuse her discretion by finding in favor of the employer and thus affirmed the judgment in the case.