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Appeals court overturns ADA verdict in favor of employees terminated for lawful prescription drug use

September 15, 2014

A federal appeals court recently reversed a jury’s award of $870,000, including $400,000 in punitive damages, to several former employees of Dura Automotive Systems, Inc. (Dura) who claimed Dura violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when Dura discharged the employees for testing positive for their lawful use of prescription drugs. Dura argued the use of prescription drugs that had specific warnings about operating machinery was unsafe in its manufacturing environment. The trial judge decided as a matter of law that Dura’s testing for prescription drugs constituted either a medical examination or a disability-related inquiry under the ADA. The jury found that Dura failed to prove the testing was job-related and consistent with business necessity, as Dura was required to do under the ADA. For a more detailed summary of the trial proceedings click here.

The appeals court held that the jury, not the trial judge, should decide if Dura’s policy constituted either a medical examination or a disability-related inquiry based on the language of the ADA and guidance provided by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Dura argued that its testing policy was not intended to force the disclosure of potential disabilities but rather to determine if an individual’s lawful prescription drug use was unsafe in Dura’s manufacturing facility. The appeals court also reversed the punitive damages award because the jury did not have the opportunity to consider whether Dura intended to comply with the ADA. The appeals court decision can be accessed here. The plaintiffs have filed a motion for all 13 of the appeals court judges to reconsider the decision. We will continue to monitor the progress of the case.

This case highlights the importance of careful creation and implementation of drug testing policies, especially when it comes to lawful prescription drug use. On Wednesday, October 22, 2014, Honigman will host a free webinar addressing employers’ rights regarding employees’ lawful use of prescription drugs. Watch for additional details and registration information to come. In the meantime, if you have any questions about the legal requirements in this area, please contact a Honigman Labor and Employment attorney.