Minnesota Employer Wins in DATWA Drug Testing Lawsuit
In Jones v. Green Bay Packaging, Inc., No. A15-0017 (Minn. Ct. App. Aug. 10, 2015), the Minnesota Court of Appeals found in favor of a Minnesota employer who discharged an employee after the employee failed to comply with the recommended chemical dependency treatment approved by the employer. This ruling comes despite the strict requirements imposed upon employers by Minnesota Drug and Alcohol Testing in the Workplace Act (“DATWA”). This case is a win for Minnesota employers and suggests that employees do not have the unilateral right to select their rehabilitation center of choice following a first positive test.
Jones v. Green Bay Packaging, Inc.
Appellant James Jones was injured in 2012 in a workplace accident, which triggered a drug test under the collective bargaining agreement in place between his union and his employer. Jones’ initial drug test was positive for marijuana use and Green Bay Packaging placed Jones on unpaid suspension.
Because this was Jones’ first positive drug test, Green Bay Packaging could not discharge Jones without satisfying DATWA’s requirement that the employee first be given the chance to complete a counseling or rehabilitation program at the employee’s expense. On this note, DATWA provides:
[A]n employer may not discharge an employee for whom a positive test result on a confirmatory test was the first such result for the employee on a drug or alcohol test requested by the employer unless the following conditions have been met:
(1) the employer has first given the employee an opportunity to participate in, at the employee’s own expense or pursuant to coverage under an employee benefit plan, either a drug or alcohol counseling or rehabilitation program, whichever is more appropriate, as determined by the employer after consultation with a certified chemical use counselor or a physician trained in the diagnosis and treatment of chemical dependency; and
(2) the employee has either refused to participate in the counseling or rehabilitation program or has failed to successfully complete the program, as evidenced by withdrawal from the program before its completion or by a positive test result on a confirmatory test after completion of the program.
Green Bay Packaging presented Jones with a Conditional Reinstatement Agreement (“CRA”), which stated that Jones could retain his employment if he immediately submitted to an evaluation by a chemical dependency treatment center approved by the company and successfully participated in treatment for the amount of time recommended by the center. Along with the CRA, the company presented Jones with a list of approved treatment facilities and indicated that additional facilities could be approved by the company.
Jones requested approval of two treatment facilities not on the list, one of which was Riverplace Counseling Centers, which Green Bay Packing approved. Jones visited Riverplace for a chemical dependency assessment and Riverplace recommended that Jones receive outpatient chemical dependency treatment at its facility four times per week. Jones then requested to receive his treatment at a different (previously unapproved) treatment facility because Riverside was a 30-minute commute from his home and involved four sessions per week whereas the other facility was close to his home and its program only met twice per week. Green Bay Packaging denied the request. Jones did not participate in the approved treatment plan at Riverside and was terminated in June 2012.
Before the district court, Jones argued that he was wrongfully discharged under DATWA because he did not refuse chemical dependency treatment within the meaning of the statute. Jones also alleged that Green Bay Packaging acted arbitrarily and capriciously in restricting his choice of treatment centers.
Green Bay Packaging moved for summary judgment on the basis that it did not violate DATWA because Green Bay Packaging offered Jones a treatment plan and he did not complete it. The district court agreed and granted its motion for summary judgment. Jones appealed.
Minnesota Court of Appeals Decision
On appeal, the Minnesota Court of Appeals held that Green Bay Packaging did not violate DATWA by refusing to accept Jones’ request for a different facility after it approved the first facility he requested.
The court emphasized that the plain language of DATWA required only that the employer provide “an opportunity to participate in a treatment program.” Jones v. Green Bay Packing, 2015 WL 4715538, at *3 (Minn. Ct. App. Aug. 10, 2015) (emphasis in original). Green Bay Packaging provided the required opportunity when it approved Jones’ own request for treatment at Riverplace. According to the Court of Appeals, it was not required to grant him an additional opportunity.
The court further held that, under the language of DATWA, Jones had failed to complete “the schedule of treatment that the employer provided the employee an opportunity to attend.” It was not a defense that Jones claimed he was willing to attend a different treatment program.
While Jones argued that an employee, under this interpretation, could potentially be forced to attend a treatment program antithetical to his/her beliefs, the court did not consider the merits of this argument. Such an argument was purely hypothetical and not applicable to the facts of the case.
Lessons for Minnesota Employers
Jones v. Green Bay Packing stands for the proposition that following a first positive drug or alcohol test result, Minnesota employers will comply with DATWA by providing the employee with an opportunity to participate in a drug or alcohol counseling or rehabilitation program, even if it is not the one preferred by the employee. Further, under DATWA, the employee does not have the unilateral right to select the program or insist that the employer allow the employee to switch to a different center during the middle of treatment.
Despite the pro-employer holding in Jones v. Green Bay Packing, some questions remain. The court side-stepped the question of whether employers must be willing to approve a treatment program that accords with the employee’s beliefs. The court’s decision turned largely on the fact that the employee in question had previously approved Riverplace as the rehabilitation center and, in fact, he was the one to suggest Riverplace in the first place. The most prudent approach is for employers to provide employees with a range of acceptable rehabilitation centers following a first positive test and, if none of those is acceptable to the employee, allow the employee to provide input regarding additional centers to be considered. If the employee objects to a particular center for legitimate grounds (e.g., extreme distance, exorbitant cost, or sincerely held religious beliefs), the most conservative approach would be for the employer to select another rehabilitation center that is acceptable to both the employee and the company.
If you have questions about drug testing in the workplace, the specific requirements of the Minnesota Drug and Alcohol Testing in the Workplace Act, or how to lawfully respond to a first positive drug test in the State of Minnesota, contact one of the Minnesota employment attorneys of Trepanier MacGillis Battina P.A.
About the Author:
Minnesota drug testing attorney Craig W. Trepanier advises employers and defends litigation regarding drug testing, alcohol testing, drug addiction and alcoholism in the workplace, and compliance with the Minnesota Drug and Alcohol Testing in the Workplace Act. Craig may be reached at 612.455.0502 or email@example.com. Trepanier MacGillis Battina P.A. is a Minnesota drug testing law firm located in Minneapolis, Minnesota.