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Rhode Island Supreme Court Clarifies ‘Reasonable Grounds’ Standard for Employment-Based Drug Testing

Like many states, Rhode Island has enacted a statute that governs the use of drug tests in the employment context. Under Rhode Island’s drug-testing statute, R.I. Gen. Laws § 28-6.5-1(a)(1), an employer may require an employee to submit to a drug test only if it has “reasonable grounds to believe based on specific aspects of the employee’s job performance and specific contemporaneous documented observations, concerning the employee’s appearance, behavior or speech that the employee may be under the influence of a controlled substance, which may be impairing his or her ability to perform his or her job.” Until recently, no appellate decision had addressed whether an employer had “reasonable grounds” to ask an employee to take a drug test. However, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island recently addressed that question in Colpitts v. W.B. Mason Co., Inc., No. 2018-337-Appeal (May 29, 2020).

Background

In Colpitts, a delivery driver, Michael Colpitts, injured his hand while making deliveries for his employer. The injury left him unable to finish his assigned deliveries, but instead of calling his supervisor to notify him of the injury (as he had done in the past), he simply returned to his employer’s warehouse. When he arrived at the warehouse, he spoke with his supervisor and the employer’s branch manager. During those conversations, the supervisor and branch manager observed Colpitts engaging in “‘weird’” or “‘unusual’” behavior, including repeatedly bending over, putting his hands on his knees, saying he was going to “‘puke,’” staggering, excessively using obscenities, and failing to speak in complete sentences. They also found that Colpitts’s account of how he sustained his injuries was incoherent. Notably, Colpitts did not know which hand he had injured and could not explain how he got back into his truck following the injury.

As a result of the branch manager’s observations, he asked Colpitts to go to a medical facility with the supervisor so that Colpitts could take a drug test. During the ride to the medical facility, Colpitts disclosed to his supervisor that he was a medical marijuana cardholder and would fail the drug test. Although he took, and passed, a breathalyzer, he refused to take a drug test. A few days later, the employer terminated Colpitts’s employment for refusing to submit to a drug test.

The Trial Court’s Decision

Colpitts filed suit against his former employer, alleging that it had violated the drug-testing statute when it required him to take a drug test without reasonable grounds and then terminated his employment when he refused to do so. The trial judge found that, based on the supervisor’s and branch manager’s observations of Colpitts’s behavior, the employer had reasonable grounds for asking the employee to take a drug test. Although Colpitts’s behavior was consistent with suffering a painful injury, the judge determined that “‘just because there’s competing explanations doesn’t mean that [the employer’s] request was unreasonable.’”

The Supreme Court of Rhode Island’s Decision

Colpitts appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing that there was “‘absolutely no evidence that [he] was under the influence of any drug, and specifically under the influence of marijuana.’” The Supreme Court of Rhode Island, however, disagreed. Specifically, the Rhode Island high court found that Colpitts’s failure to call his supervisor to report his injury (which he had done in the past), his inability to coherently describe the cause of his injury, and his “‘odd’” behavior (namely, bending over, saying he was going to puke, and repeatedly using obscenities), as well as the branch manager’s belief that Colpitts “‘could have been on something,’” provided the employer with reasonable grounds to believe that the employee was under the influence.

In so finding, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island rejected Colpitts’s contention that his symptoms were not typically associated with being under the influence of a controlled substance and that the pain from his injury had caused the symptoms. According to the court, those considerations are irrelevant to the issue of reasonableness under the drug-testing statute:

The employee’s behavior does not need to be such that it could lead to onlya conclusion that he or she is under the influence of a controlled substance. The statute at issue clearly and unambiguously does not require actual knowledge that the employee is definitely under the influence, nor that the employee manifest the specific symptoms usually associated with being under the influence; the statute requires only that there be reasonable grounds to believe that the employee is under the influence of a controlled substance.

Key Takeaways for Employers

Colpitts confirms that Rhode Island employers need only have “reasonable grounds” to believe that employees are under the influence of controlled substances in order to require them to submit to drug tests. The decision also makes clear that the presence of a competing explanation for an employee’s apparent intoxication does not render an employer’s belief that a controlled substance is to blame any less reasonable.

© 2021, Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C., All Rights Reserved.National Law Review, Volume X, Number 164
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About this Author

Francesco A. DeLuca, Ogletree Deakins, Employment Whistleblowing Disputes Lawyer,
Associate

Fran is an attorney in the Boston office where he represents and advises employers in on a variety of labor and employment issues.

Fran graduated from Boston University School of Law in 2014. While in law school, Fran interned in the general counsel's office of a start-up company. Through this experience, Fran gained first-hand knowledge of the concerns employers have when dealing with labor and employment issues. He also interned, and after law school, worked as a Temporary Law Clerk, for the Honorable O. Rogeriee Thompson of the United States...

617-994-5737
Patrick M. Curran Jr., Ogletree Deakins, arbitration of labor lawyer, employment disputes attorney
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Patrick Curran advocates for and advises employers in nearly every area of labor and employment law. He has particular expertise in the litigation and arbitration of labor and employment disputes, and has represented employers before state and federal courts and administrative agencies in a broad range of matters including the alleged violation of non-solicitation, non-competition, and confidentiality agreements, theft of trade secrets, breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, wrongful termination, and violation of federal and state wage and hour, anti-...

617-994-5728
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