Termination Upheld Due to Illegal Drug Use

In a victory for School Districts, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court recently decided the case of Metz v. Bethlehem Area School District on January 4, 2018.  In this case, a professional employee, Timothy Metz, appealed the determination of the Pennsylvania Secretary of Education affirming the Bethlehem Area School District Board of Education’s decision to terminate his employment under Section 1122 of the School Code.  The facts of the case are all too familiar to many employers at the height of the current drug crisis.  Mr. Metz was involved in a custody dispute.  On February 4, 2016, the School District received a copy of a January 27, 2016 letter addressed to Mr. Metz’s legal counsel in the custody dispute, sent by opposing counsel, stating that opposing counsel was in possession of drug test results indicating Mr. Metz had tested positive for the presence of cocaine.  The letter further indicated that Mr. Metz was under court order to undergo random drug screenings over an eight week period, but that Mr. Metz had not complied with the court order.

After reviewing the letter, the School District’s Human Resources Director immediately met with Mr. Metz and his union representative.  The HR Director asked Mr. Metz to undergo a drug test and further informed him that if he did not comply, he risked additional discipline.  Mr. Metz refused to undergo the drug test, and the School District placed him on unpaid suspension.  On February 8, 2016, the School District again directed Mr. Metz to submit to a drug test based upon “reasonable suspicion of [Mr. Metz’s] drug use” in violation of District Policy and the Pennsylvania School Code.  The letter further indicated the District’s basis for reasonable suspicion, specifically identifying the letter informing Mr. Metz’s legal counsel of the positive drug test.  On February 9, 2016, Mr. Metz took a drug test, which revealed the presence of cocaine.

Following the positive drug test, the School District sent Mr. Metz a Loudermill Notice, after which Mr. Metz waived his right to a hearing.  On March 7, 2016, the School District issued a Statement of Charges and Notice of Hearing to Mr. Metz which notified him that the District was recommending his termination.  The District indicated that the termination was based on charges of willful neglect of duties and immorality.   Following the hearing, the School Board issued an administrative recommendation that Mr. Metz be terminated from his employment.  Mr. Metz appealed this determination to the Secretary of Education, who affirmed the School District’s decision.  On appeal to the Commonwealth Court, Mr. Metz contended that the school district did not carry its burden of proof in establishing that Mr. Metz engaged in immoral behavior because the February 9 drug test was obtained unconstitutionally since the School District lacked reasonable suspicion to order the test.

The Commonwealth Court agreed that a government employer’s collection and testing of urine constitutes a search for purposes of the Fourth Amendment as well as Article 1, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.  As the Court stated, “ordinarily, for a search by the government to be considered constitutionally reasonable it must be undertaken pursuant to a warrant demonstrating probable cause.” “However, probable cause is not an irreducible requirement of a valid search… [w]here a careful balancing of governmental and private interests suggests that the public interest is best served by a Fourth Amendment standard of reasonableness that stops short of probable cause, we have not hesitated to adopt such a standard.”  According to the Court, that principle applied equally to government employers who have a paramount interest in ensuring that employees in safety-sensitive jobs (which, as the Court stated, included public school teachers) are free from the effects of drugs while performing their duties and thus employees have a lower expectation of privacy with regard to intoxication.

Of particular interest to School Districts, the Court expanded upon the type of information that could provide the employer with reasonable suspicion to justify compelling an employee to undergo a drug test.  “Where a search is based upon information obtained from an informant, courts look to three factors: the informant’s veracity, the reliability of the information, and the informant’s basis of knowledge.”  Here, the Court found that correspondence between two identified attorneys, which appeared reliable due to the highly specific nature of the information, combined with the fact that the date the letter was written and the date of the underlying court order were written in close proximity to the date the School District received the letter, all combined to provide the School District with reasonable suspicion that Mr. Metz may have been under the influence of drugs while teaching.

It is important to note that the Commonwealth Court in this case agreed that a School District could establish reasonable suspicion through information received by a reliable third-party.  In the future, this case may serve as an important precedent and may be cited in the event a School District receives information from an outside source that a professional employee may be abusing narcotics in violation of District policy.  Such information could establish a basis for requiring a professional employee to undergo drug testing in order to ensure that the School District is complying with its mandate to provide a safe environment for students that is free from the influence of narcotics and those who abuse them.

Issues with respect to employee illegal drug use are becoming a frequent basis for employee discipline and termination.  The attorneys in the Education Law Team of Maiello, Brungo & Maiello, LLP, 412-242-4400, are well experienced in navigating the process of public employee discipline and are prepared to answer any questions you may have if your School District is faced with a similar situation.