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Public employers: OK to demand medical records if drug test leads to rehab

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in Employment Law,Human Resources

Public employees who work in jobs related to public health and safety and who test positive for drugs can’t refuse to sign medical releases related to treatment for drug and alcohol problems.

Recent case: Michael and a group of other Buffalo firefighters sued after the city threatened to fire them if they refused to sign medical record releases. All had tested positive for controlled substances during a routine drug test. Those who wanted to keep their jobs entered treatment and rehabilitation programs.

As a condition of treatment and continued employment, the men had to sign medical releases authorizing their doctors to provide treatment details while they were in rehab. The firefighters argued the release requirement violated their constitutional right to privacy.

The court disagreed. It pointed out that the intrusion was minimal, since the only information requested was related to their treatment for drug or alcohol abuse. Plus, the court balanced the significant health and safety concerns the employer had for employees working in dangerous professions. It found that those interests outweighed the firefighters’ privacy concerns. (Men of Color Helping All Society, et al., v. City of Buffalo, et al., No. 12-3067, 2nd Cir., 2013)

Final note: Public employees are entitled to a due process hearing before termination or other significant changes in their employment status. But that hearing doesn’t have to be formal or extensive. The Buffalo firefighters challenged the drug tests before having to enter rehab. That was sufficient.

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