Employee Can Be Terminated for Refusal to Drug-Test, R.I. Court Rules

On May 29, the Rhode Island Supreme Court published an opinion concerning an appeal centered on a review of the state employer drug testing statute, RI Gen. Laws 28-6.5-1, after the employer-appellee terminated the employee-appellant for refusing to participate in a requested drug test.

The court affirmed the trial court decision to uphold the termination because the statute “requires only that there be reasonable grounds to believe that the employee is under the influence of a controlled substance” and that the trial court’s findings were not “clearly erroneous” nor did the findings overlook “material evidence” or fail “to do substantial justice between the parties,” the standard required to overturn a trial court ruling on appeal in Rhode Island following a non-jury trial.

The statute states that “employers may require that an employee submit to a drug test if … [t]he employer 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….” The court determined that the trial court appropriately determined this legal standard to be met following testimony stating that the employee was doing the following at the time of the requested drug test: (1) “clenching over”; (2) “putting his hands on his knees, bending over…”; (3) being “very excessive with the ‘F’ word…”; (4) stating “I need to catch my breath” and “I was going to puke”; (5) failing to make complete sentences; (6) “abruptly start[ing] to make a swallowing”; and (7) “walking in circles.”

The employee argued against the evidence laid out in the testimony, averring that the behavior laid out above proved “indicative of his being in pain (due to a prior wrist injury)” and not “indicative of…being under the influence of a controlled substance.” While the court agreed that the root of the aforementioned symptoms above could derive from “more than one available inference,” that “the employee’s behavior does not need to be such that it could lead to only a 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.” As such, the court concluded, the trial court justice did not “abuse her discretion” as “[t]here were ample facts in this case on the basis of which the trial justice could have reached the conclusion that reasonable grounds existed…for the request that [the employee] take a drug test….”