Employees' ADA Claims on Prescription-Drug-Use Dismissals Rejected by Federal Court
Ruling that only persons with disabilities can pursue claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act’s provisions on qualification tests and standards (42 U.S.C. §§ 12112(a) and (b)(6)), the federal appeal court in Cincinnati upheld an employer’s dismissal of seven employees for testing positive for prescription-drug use. Bates v. Dura Automotive Systems, Inc., No. 09-6351 (6th Cir. Nov. 3, 2010). Notwithstanding that some provisions of the ADA generally has been interpreted to cover non-disabled individuals who are discriminated against (e.g., a “perception” of disability), the Court said it based its conclusion on a straightforward reading of the statute and noted that its interpretation was consistent with that of the Fifth Circuit’s (citing Fuzy v. S&B Engineers & Constructors Ltd., 332 F.3d 301, 14 AD Cases 676 (5th Cir. 2003)). (The Court had previously ruled in another case that the 2008 amendments to the ADA did not apply retroactively. Thus, they were inapplicable in this case.) The Sixth Circuit has jurisdiction over Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee.
The Facts of the Case
The Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, plant of Dura Automotive Systems, an auto-parts manufacturer, had a high accident rate (compared to similar manufacturing plants). The plant implemented a 12-panel drug-test program in which banned substances included prescription drugs known to cause impairment and, thus, create safety risks (e.g., Xanax, Lortab, and Oxycodone). Seven employees tested positive for legal substances banned by the program.
All employees who tested positive for banned prescription drugs are given the option of switching to other drugs not containing the banned substances. After the seven employees tested positive again for the banned substances, they were terminated.
The employees sued, claiming the drug-testing program violated the ADA. The company argued the plaintiffs had no standing to sue under the statute. The trial court disagreed and held the plaintiffs had standing to sue under the ADA’s provisions on qualification tests and standards (42 U.S.C. §§ 12112(a) and (b)(6)).
Plain Text of Statute
The Sixth Circuit reversed the lower court and ordered dismissal of the plaintiffs’ claims under the ADA because “the plain text of subsection (b)(6) only covers individuals with disabilities.” It ruled, “A straightforward reading of this statute compels the conclusion that only a ‘qualified individual with a disability’ is protected from the prohibited form of discrimination described in subsection (b)(6) – the use of qualification standards and other tests that tend to screen out disabled individuals.”
Job-relatedness and Business Necessity Exceptions
Judge Boyce F. Martin, Jr., on behalf of the Court, wrote, “[W]e endeavor to read statutes and regulations with an eye to their straightforward and common sense meanings. When we can discern an unambiguous and plain meaning from the language of a statute, our task is at an end.” Thus, the Court did not address whether Dura’s prescription-drug-testing and terminations fell within the exception in the ADA’s non-discrimination standards of “job-relatedness” and “consistent with business necessity.”
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