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Thursday, December 4, 2014

Housing Authority's Interpretation of Drug Policy Too Broad

The Housing Authority of Jefferson County had a drug policy that prohibits employees from using or being under the influence of alcohol or any controlled substance "while in the course of employment."  It also conducted random drug testing of its employees.  When an employee was called for a random drug test on December 19, 2008, he informed his supervisor that he thought he would fail the test because he had smoked marijuana on a recent vacation on November 15 and 22, 2008.  He was subsequently terminated for violating the drug policy.  His drug test results came in after his termination, and were negative.

The employee sued, arguing that the drug and alcohol ban only applied while he was performing work duties, and he was improperly denied unemployment benefits.  The trial court and appellate courts both agreed.  Eastham v. Housing Authority of Jefferson County, 2014 IL App (5th) 130209.  

The court addressed two issues.  First, the court had to determine whether the employee's conduct qualified as "misconduct" to justify denial of unemployment benefits.  Second, the court addressed the issue of whether the employer's drug policy was reasonable.

With respect to the first issue, the court rejected the employer's interpretation of the phrase "while in the course of employment" to mean any time that an employee is employed by the Housing Authority as too broad and unreasonable.  Instead, the court interpreted the policy to apply to an employee who has a measurable amount of a prohibited substance in any drug test.  In this case, the employee's drug test was negative, so he did not engage in "misconduct" for purposes of being denied unemployment benefits.  

The court found the Authority's drug policy reasonable, based on its own interpretation of the Housing Authority's drug policy to only prohibit employees from being under the influence of drugs or alcohol while on the job because requirements related to the performance of an employee's duties are reasonable.  However, the Authority's own interpretation of the drug policy (to ban use of illicit substances at any time during an employee's tenure) would not be reasonable, according to the court. 

Although the court found that the employee should not have been disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits, it did not address whether the Authority's discharge of the employee was lawful, stating that an "employee's conduct may be sufficient to justify his discharge without constituting misconduct sufficient to disqualify him from [unemployment] benefits..."

Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf


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