Davis Brown Law Firm

It is no surprise to any Iowa employer that the state has one of the most complex drug testing statutes in the country. Iowa Code §730.5 places the burden specifically on the employer to show strict compliance and can be complicated to navigate with its myriad of notice and policy provisions.

In January, the Iowa Court of Appeals issued two decisions relating to the Iowa drug testing statute that employers will want to pay attention to.

Confirmatory drug test costs

The first, Lucas Woods v. Charles Gabus Ford Inc., involves a standard drug testing claim. Mr. Woods was terminated from his job at Charles Gabus Ford for failing a drug test. As alleged in his original petition, this was inappropriate under Iowa law because Charles Gabus Ford did not send Mr. Woods the post-test notice marked “return receipt requested,” as required by the law.

He also claimed that the company’s supervisory personnel did not have adequate training to supervise or administer its drug-testing program, and that the notice to Mr. Woods that he failed to pass the drug test did not specifically include the cost of a confirmatory drug test as required by the law.

While the Appellate Court did not find the return receipt request compelling, it did reverse the lower court’s dismissal of Mr. Woods’ claim on the basis that the cost of the confirmatory drug test was not included in the post-test notice. The court concluded this was a clear violation.

The Court noted that the statute specifically requires that the cost of a confirmatory drug test be included in the notice letter and that failure to do so could impede Woods’ ability to request the second confirmatory test.

Substantial compliance

In the second case, Tyler Dix, Jason Catell, Jim McCann and Julie Eller v. Casey General Stores Inc. and Casey’s Marketing Company, the Court looked at yet another drug testing claim.

The plaintiffs were all fired as a result of drug test issues, with three of them testing positive and one unable to provide a urine sample pursuant to Casey’s testing policy.

First, and importantly, the Court confirmed that it would review Casey’s policies and practices for substantial, not strict, compliance with §730.5. The Court noted, “Substantial compliance means satisfying the reasonable objectives of a statute as to essential matters.” This assists employers if they may have made technical errors that didn’t truly impact compliance.

The Court evaluated several of Casey’s practices, including selection process and testing procedure (i.e., collection site, collection of samples under sanitary conditions with regard to privacy for the individuals, training of supervisory personnel, random testing on a periodic basis, and employee rights to offer medical information relevant to testing) for substantial compliance with the law. Though Casey’s did not dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’, the Court found that Casey’s substantially complied with the objectives of the statute.

Random drug testing

Casey’s policy stated that employees would be randomly selected to participate in testing from a group or pool of employees in “safety sensitive” positions. The policy further provided that employees would be terminated for a confirmed positive test, refusal to take a test, or failure to provide an adequate sample. Part of the issue in this claim is the immunity provision of Iowa Code §730.5 which provides that an employer taking action based on results of a positive drug or alcohol test in good faith shall be immune from a lawsuit so long as the employer has established a policy and initiated a testing program in accordance with the testing and policy safeguards of the statute.

The Court correctly noted that the arguments at trial in the Appellate Brief created an interesting conundrum as “an employer who violates the statute cannot benefit from the immunity, but an employer who does not follow the statute has no need for the immunity” striving to “construe the statute to avoid that circularity.”

As Casey’s hired external third parties to handle the randomization, as is required by the statute, and a lab to conduct the test, it argued that it was immune from liability as it was the legislative intent that the employer would not be responsible for the actions of third parties such as drug testing labs.

However, the Court ultimately decided that “Casey’s would avoid liability only if it can show substantial compliance with the statutory requirements for drug testing in the workplace.”

Safety sensitive positions

The Court further assessed whether at least two of the employees were actually in safety sensitive positions as defined by both the statute and Casey’s policy. The definitions of “safety sensitive” specifically include jobs where an accident could cause loss of life, serious bodily injury, and other significant property or environmental damage.

The lesser positions were viewed by the Court as unlikely to meet this definition. The Court focused on the actual duties performed by each person, the Court determined that two of the plaintiffs, Catell and Dix, did heavy-duty work which included building pallets and operating forklifts which rendered them as part of the safety sensitive group of employees.

The other two plaintiffs, Aller and McCann, did what the Court terms as “light duty work” processing returns of certain products which excluded them from the safety sensitive designation since an accident would not typically cause a loss of life or significant damage.

The Big Picture: Policies and Training

Substantial and strict compliance aside, Iowa’s drug testing statute is complex. The court is likely to hold the employer, not a vendor, such as a lab, responsible. To stay out of court, employers need clear, compliant policies, as well as training and follow up to test their processes.