ADA and Drug Addiction: The Ninth Circuit Provides Guidance

A recent opinion from the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has clarified employer liability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, where the employer requires drug testing as a prerequisite to employment. In Lopez v. Pacific Maritime Associates, the plaintiff challenged a union’s one-strike rule, which provided that one positive drug or enchained by the lawalcohol test during pre-employment testing permanently prohibited hiring of the applicant.

In this case, the plaintiff applied for work as a longshoreman in 1997, but was rejected after he tested positive for marijuana. After seeking treatment for his drug addition, the plaintiff again applied in 2004, but was denied under the union’s one-strike rule.

In response, the plaintiff sued under the ADA, alleging that he had suffered discrimination on the basis of a disability–his previous drug addiction. The plaintiff alleged both disparate treatment and disparate impact. In reviewing the appeal, the Ninth Circuit rejected the plaintiff’s disparate treatment assertions on several fronts. First, the Court held that because the on-strike rule denied employment to both addicts and recreational drug users, it did not discriminate on the basis of addiction. In reaching its holding, the Court emphasized that “the ADA prohibits employment decisions made because of a person’s qualifying disability, not decisions made because of factors merely related to a person’s disability.”

Second, the Court concluded that there was no evidence to indicate that the union imposed the one-strike rule with the intention of excluding recovering addicts from the workforce. Instead, the Court found that the one-strike rule was tied to a history of injuries and fatalities in the longshore industry, resulting from the use of drugs and alcohol in the workplace.

Finally, the Court found it significant that the union did not learn of the plaintiff’s addiction until after it had again denied him employment in 2004. In the absence of knowledge about his disability, its decision could not have been based on discriminatory animus.

With regard to his disparate impact claim, the Court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the one-strike rule disproportionately impacted recovering drug addicts, because plaintiff did not provide any relevant statistical evidence in support of his allegations.

The Ninth Circuit’s opinion should reassure those employers who engage in non-discriminatory drug testing. As we already know, if your drug testing policy applies to all employees meeting certain neutral criteria (e.g. all job applicants, or all employees involved in workplace accidents) your conduct is lawful under the ADA. While the one-strike rule addressed by the Ninth Circuit is severe, the Court’s opinion is in keeping with previous ADA jurisprudence protecting employers who drug test job applicants and employees under facially-neutral circumstances.

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