A Washington federal district court recently ruled in favor of a terminated employee whose employer failed to accommodate for her use of prescription drugs due to a protected disability. The employee worked in customer service, and suffered from chronic migraines, for which she began receiving injections of the opioid Dilaudid. Due to her disability, she had to take intermittent time off to receive her injections and required a rest period post injection in order to be fit for work. The employer had a fitness for duty policy which prohibited employees from working while under the influence of drugs, but made no exceptions for medically prescribed drugs. When her intermittent leave became a source of frustration for her supervisors, the employee applied for FMLA leave, which was approved. One day, the employer gave the employee a drug test after she returned from an injection because they believed she was impaired, and thus unfit to perform her job duties. The employee explained her condition and the nature of her medication, and her doctor sent a letter explaining the effects of the injections on her ability to perform her essential work functions. After receiving positive drug test results from their lab, the employer required the employee to sign a return to work agreement stipulating she would not be impaired on the job, with no mention of an exception for her prescription medications. She was eventually terminated after a second positive drug test.
In reviewing the case, the federal court determined the employee had a protected disability, she was qualified to perform the essential job functions or her position, and her employee had sufficient notice of her condition and its limitations. The court concluded the employer had not made reasonable accommodations for the employee, and that they had treated her disability as a disciplinary process, rather than the interactive process required by the ADA. The employee received $1.8 million in economic damages and an additional $10,000 in emotional distress damages.
This case underscores the importance of engaging in an interactive process regarding an employee’s disability and related use of prescription drugs in the workplace. Employers are lawfully allowed to test applicants and employees for illegal drug use, including the use of controlled substances not prescribed to the applicant or used in a way which is not in line with the prescription. However, employers need to tread carefully when making decisions based on an employee’s use of a lawful prescription drug. They need to be fully informed of the disability and the effect of the prescribed substance on the employee’s work performance and capabilities and engage in an interactive process regarding reasonable accommodations required by the employee and not simply react to the result of the drug test.