June 24, 2017

Archives for March 26, 2017

Tenth Circuit: Random Drug Test for County Employee Acceptable When Employee Holds Safety-Sensitive Position

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Washington v. Unified Government of Wyandotte County, Kansas on February 6, 2017.

Roberick Washington was a lieutenant at the Wyandotte Country Juvenile Detention Center in Kansas City, Kansas. The position entailed Washington interacting with residents, conducting disciplinary hearings for residents, driving the County van to take juveniles to the intake assessment center, and being present if a fight broke out. Wyandotte County has a random drug testing policy that applies to employees in “safety sensitive positions.” The county’s Policy on Substance Abuse and Drug and Alcohol Testing lists Washington’s position, “juvenile lieutenant,” as a safety sensitive position. The policy states that a failed drug or alcohol test is grounds for discipline, including discharge.

Sheriff Donald Ash terminated Washington after he tested positive for cocaine following a random drug test. Pursuant to the Human Resource Guide, Washington Appealed Ash’s decision to the administrator of the Juvenile Detention Center. This grievance was denied, and Washington appealed to the County Administrator’s Office. After a hearing, an assistant county administrator upheld the termination. Washington claims that he sought an evidentiary hearing and a name-clearing hearing, but was denied both.

Washington alleged three violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, namely that the drug test was an illegal search in violation of his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, he was deprived of his property interest in continued employment without due process, and defendants failed to provide him with a name-clearing hearing. Additionally, Washington claimed the county breached an implied contract created by its written disciplinary policies in violation of state contract law. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendants on all counts.

The Tenth Circuit first addressed Washington’s § 1983 claims. Municipalities are not protected by qualified immunity, so to grant summary judgment in favor or a municipality, the pleadings and supporting materials must establish there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. A plaintiff must identify an unconstitutional policy that caused the claimed injury in order for a municipality to be liable under § 1983. A plaintiff must establish that the municipal employee causing the harm violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights.

The Tenth Circuit first addressed Washington’s claim that the county’s random drug test violated the Fourth Amendment’s probable cause and warrant requirements. Ordinarily, a search must be based on individualized suspicion of wrongdoing. However, when the government asserts a special need beyond ordinary crime detection, the Tenth Circuit has found suspicionless drug testing reasonable if the government’s interests outweigh the individual’s privacy interests. Courts have held that when drug use among the individuals tested would threaten the workplace or public safety, the government’s concerns are real. Additionally, courts have held that random drug tests are effective at detecting and deterring drug use.

The Tenth Circuit held that the county had a legitimate special need because the random drug tests to juvenile lieutenants ensured the safety and welfare of the children housed in the juvenile detention center. The juvenile lieutenant position involved interactions with residents, and drug use would impair his ability to interact with the youth. Additionally, the random testing minimized the possibility that employees would evade detection and maximized deterrence. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit found a legitimate special need for the random drug testing.

The Tenth Circuit then weighed the special need against Washington’s privacy interests to determine if the tests were reasonable. The Tenth Circuit held that as a correctional employee, Washington’s expectation of privacy was diminished. Additionally, the drug testing was minimally invasive, as Washington provided a sample behind a closed door with no supervision.

Next, the Tenth Circuit held that the county presented two interests that were important enough to justify testing Washington. The first was that Washington was working with juveniles in an educational setting, and an employee’s illegal drug use presented a risk of harm to minors. Second, if an employee has law enforcement duties and access to direct contact with inmates, that employee’s illegal use of drugs presents a significant threat to inmates and the security of the facility. The Supreme Court has held that suspicionless drug testing of employees in certain safety sensitive positions was reasonable. In this case, the county’s policy lists “juvenile lieutenant” as a safety sensitive position. The Tenth Circuit held that this classification was reasonable to Washington’s position based on the duties that he performed. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that in this specific instance, the county’s interests were more important and outweighed Washington’s diminished privacy rights, and thus the random drug test was reasonable. Consequently, neither Sheriff Ash nor the county could be subject to § 1983 liability.

Next, the Tenth Circuit addressed Washington’s claim that the county’s personnel policies established he had a protected property interest in his continued employment at the Juvenile Detention Center. The Tenth Circuit stated a two-part inquiry to determine whether a plaintiff was denied procedural due process. First, the plaintiff must have a protected interest to which due process is applicable. The second inquiry is whether the plaintiff was afforded an appropriate level of due process.

Here, the Tenth Circuit looked to Kansas state law to determine if Washington had a protected property interest. The Tenth Circuit determined that Kansas law established that public employment is presumptively at-will, and that Washington did not provide evidence to rebut this presumption. The Tenth Circuit held that personnel policies alone were insufficient to create an implied employment contract. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment on this claim.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment for Washington’s claim that he was entitled to a name-clearing hearing because Washington’s pretrial order did not reference any damaged liberty interest.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit holds that because Washington failed to establish that there was an implied employment contract, the county was entitled to summary judgment on his breach of contract claim.

Tenth Circuit: Unpublished Opinions, 3/24/2017

On Friday, March 24, 2017, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued one published opinion and three unpublished opinions.

Sanchez v. Surratt

United States v. Valdez

United States v. Billingsley

Case summaries are not provided for unpublished opinions. However, some published opinions are summarized and provided by Legal Connection.