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Recent Challenges to the Use of Hair Follicle Drug Testing

Without question, the trucking industry must do all it can to make sure its drivers are drug-free. However, employers must establish policies and procedures that recognize the diversity in the work force and the need to be flexible in the types of drug tests it administers to drivers and applicants. Hair testing is very effective in detecting drugs but should not be used as an end all for all applicants and experienced drivers. The National Minority Trucking Association reports that of the 3.5 million truck drivers in the United States, 1.5 million are minorities. As demands for new drivers increases, minorities are increasingly entering the profession. In addition, employers seek to retain experienced drivers. Recent court cases and EEOC settlements point to the need for those wishing to hire and retain minority drivers to have flexibility when it comes to the types of drug testing used on minority drivers and candidates.

Race-Based Challenges to Hair Follicle Testing

A recent decision from the United States District Court of Appeals for the First Circuit revived a lawsuit filed by eight police officers, a cadet, and a 911 operator. All are African American. All tested positive for cocaine after a hair follicle test was administered by the Boston Police Department. This was the second time the First Circuit found that the hair follicle test had a statistical disparate impact on African American officers in violation of Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Title 7 prohibits employers from utilizing “employment practices that cause a disparate impact on the basis of race,” unless those practices are justified by business necessity. A disparate impact claim can succeed even when the employer did not intend to discriminate against persons in a protected class. The Boston Police Department’s officers and cadets had been subject to annual hair follicle drug tests. When the testing agency reported that a sample tested positive for cocaine, a physician chosen by the department checked to see if the individual had been administered certain medications during a medical procedure. If not, the individual could elect to have a “safety net” test of a different hair sample. The safety net tests were much more sensitive than the initial tests in detecting the presence of cocaine and its chemical by-products.

Plaintiffs challenged the reliability of hair testing. They pointed out that the federal government has refused to authorize hair testing in drug screening of federal employees and employees of private industries for which the government regulates drug testing. Plaintiffs argued that black individuals have higher levels of melanin in their hair and that causes cocaine and cocaine metabolites to bind to the hair at higher rates. If someone snorts or smokes cocaine its “aerosolized powder” will deposit on any nearby surface, including non-users hair. These deposits cannot be distinguished from the effects of actual use by current hair testing methods.

The plaintiffs also pointed to statistics kept by the department over a seven-year period. The statistics showed that out of 4,222 blacks that were hair follicle tested, 55 were positive. That compared to 10,835 whites being tested and 30 being positive. This resulted in a standard deviation of 7.14. The court acknowledged Mark Twain’s quip that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics. However, the statistical analysis provided by plaintiffs provided to the court that “…we can be almost certain that the difference in outcomes associated over race over that period cannot be attributed to chance alone.”

The court then discussed whether the testing was job related. The court readily agreed that the hair test was job related since abstention from drug use was an important element of police behavior and that having a work force that did not consume drugs was a legitimate business need for the department. It noted that there was no reason why a test need be anything near 100% reliable - as few tests are - to be job related and consistent with business necessity. However, the disparate impact claim of the plaintiffs survived if they could show that an alternative test would decrease the chances of impacting innocent officers. Plaintiff’s suggested that those who had a positive hair follicle test go through a series of random follow up urinalysis tests in order to reduce the number of experienced officers being terminated and recruits being denied the opportunity of joining the force. The court found that a jury could agree with that approach and ordered that the suit go forward.

Religious Challenges to Hair Follicle Testing

In a charge filed with the EEOC, four East Indian Sikh applicants challenged J.B. Hunt’s drug testing policy. The policy required applicants to provide a hair sample for follicle testing. One of the five Articles of Faith for a Sikh is to maintain uncut hair. The Sikhs sought a religious accommodation, but were denied by J.B. Hunt. Though other testing methods were available, J.B. Hunt elected to require hair follicle testing, arguing that hair follicle testing was more accurate – and therefore more likely to assist in the company’s compliance efforts in having a drug-free driver force - than other methods.

The EEOC found reasonable cause to believe that Hunt failed to accommodate the Sikhs’ religious beliefs and effectively failed to hire a class of individuals due to race, national origin and religion in violation of Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EEOC believed that alternate testing methods were a reasonable accommodation for the Sikhs, even if marginally less accurate than hair follicle testing. Hunt agreed to pay $260,000 and extend unconditional offers of employment to the complainants. In addition, it agreed to designate an EEOC consultant, develop written policies and procedures, and conduct training for all employees participating in the hiring, compliance, and grievance process.

These cases highlight the need for trucking companies to balance their responsibilities of keeping a drug-free driver corps while also respecting the rights of their diverse applicants and employees. Though hair follicle testing is common in the industry, it is important to note that there are some situations where trucking companies need to be flexible in its use.

© 2018 Heyl, Royster, Voelker & Allen, P.C

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About this Author

Doug Heise, Litigator, Corporations, Product Liability, Trucking, Heyl Royster Law Firm
Partner

Doug joined the Edwardsville office of Heyl Royster in 2004 and became a partner in 2008. With more than 25 years of litigation experience, Doug has defended a broad range of clients from individuals involved in auto accidents, to major corporations in product liability claims, trucking/motor carrier litigation, and construction litigation.

At Heyl Royster, Doug has an active practice defending healthcare professionals who provide medical services to the prison population in Illinois. These professionals are often sued by prisoners for alleged civil rights violations in state and...

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