Employment Law Blog

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Sep 24, 2014

Drug testing for prescription medication is questionable under ADA

DisabilityDrug and Alcohol 

Random drug testing for prescription medication pushes the limits of what is permissible under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but may not necessarily violate the law, according to a recent case from the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

Random drug testing for prescription medication pushes the limits of what is permissible under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but may not necessarily violate the law, according to a recent case from the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. The case stems from an employer’s random drug testing procedures, which were specifically designed to find out if employees were using either illegal drugs or machine-restricted prescription drugs (e.g. Oxycodone).

Employees filed a lawsuit under the ADA, claiming the drug testing was an unlawful medical examination. The ADA prohibits medical inquiries or examinations, unless they are job-related and consistent with business necessity. Under this standard, random alcohol testing is prohibited, while random testing for illegal drugs is permitted. Neither the ADA nor the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidance on this topic specifically addresses whether randomly testing for prescription medication would be an unlawful medical inquiry. The court attempted to tackle the question, but effectively determined that it depends on the circumstances of the employer’s testing program. The court did, however, state that randomly testing for legally prescribed drugs is not necessarily a violation of the ADA (Bates v. Dura Automotive Systems, 6th Cir, Aug. 2014).

Tips: Employers in safety-sensitive industries may be particularly interested in this issue, since many legally prescribed medications could impair an employee’s ability to safely work with machinery. Even still, safety concerns don’t justify giving an employer carte blanche to randomly test for prescription medications. This court stated that an employer could randomly test for prescription drugs while staying within the ADA’s boundaries, but also acknowledged that it’s a close call and depends on the specific parameters of the employer’s drug testing program. The bottom line is that employers should tailor their drug testing program to fit within the ADA’s prohibition on medical inquiries and examinations. To learn more about this issue, see our Legal Guide “ADA: Post-Job-Offer Medical Exams” (3175).

Another important piece to ensuring that employees aren’t impaired at the workplace is consistently enforcing a well-defined drug and alcohol policy that specifically addresses legal substances. Vigilant has two options for a sample policy; for a simple option, see our “Drug and Alcohol Policy” (4005), while our “Model Employee Handbook” (1837) contains a more comprehensive drug and alcohol policy.

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