Case Report – Court says casual drug user not protected under human rights legislation

Yesterday the Alberta Court of Appeal issued its much-anticipated Chiasson v. Kellogg Brown & Root award, and in doing so, found that a casual drug user who was terminated after failing a pre-employment drug test was not subjected to discriminatory treatment under Alberta human rights legislation.

The key issue addressed by the Court of Appeal is whether zero tolerance drug testing policies are de facto discriminatory because they rest on a presumed assumption that casual drug users are at greater risk being impaired at work, in turn, because they are likely to fall into a “cycle of abuse.” This issue – let’s call it the perceived disability theory of casual drug user protection issue – was raised but not clearly determined in the Ontario Court of Appeal’s leading Entrop decision. It is critical in Canadian drug testing law because it determines the scope of legal protection against “unnecessary” drug tests. Ironically, Alberta is one of three provinces that have passed broadly-applicable regimes for protecting employee privacy rights. In fact, a drug testing complaint in which Kellogg Brown & Root is a respondent is now proceeding before of Alberta’s Information and Privacy Commissioner. In other jurisdictions, including Ontario, casual users who are given offers of hire conditional on testing clean have no clear avenue of redress should they feel their privacy rights have been violated.

The Court of Appeal held that the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench had erred in finding that the complainant was treated as if he was drug dependent and likely to report to work impaired. It rejected the idea that a zero tolerance policy necessarily targets those who are at risk of becoming addicted and held that all the Kellogg Brown & Root policy does is protect against the lingering deleterious effects of cannabis use (a point apparently proven in evidence). The Court of Appeal said:

Chiasson testified that what he did on his own time was his business. He did not at any time suggest that he would cease his recreational use of drugs while employed by KBR. As we have already stated the evidence established that effects of cannabis use lingers for days particularly given that the concentration of active ingredients is now many times higher than it was in the past. Given these concerns the policy’s effects are not misdirected in their application to Chiasson.

We see this case as no different than that of a trucking or taxi company which has a policy requiring its employees to refrain from the use of alcohol for some time before the employee drives one of the employer’s vehicles. Such a policy does not mean that the company perceives all its drivers to be alcoholics. Rather, assuming it is aimed at safety, the policy perceives that any level of alcohol in a driver’s blood reduces his or her ability to operate the employer’s vehicles safely. This is a legitimate presumption. Its goal is laudable since carnage on the highways is a leading, but often ignored, cause of death nearing epidemic proportions. Extending human rights protections to situations resulting in placing the lives of others at risk flies in the face of logic.

On this view, whether a drug and alcohol policy discriminates against casual users is a question of fact. This is consistent with the employer-favoured reading of Entrop, in which an Imperial Oil policy was that was found to discriminate against all drug users included langauge stating a belief in the “cycle of abuse” to which all drug users subject themselves. The Alberta Court of Appeal suggested that the perceived disability finding in Entrop was simply based on this language.

Chiasson v. Kellogg Brown & Root, 2007 ABCA 426.

One to watch – Drug testing case at Alberta CA

The Alberta Court of Appeal heard the Kellogg Brown & Root drug testing appeal on October 11th and has reserved judgement. The case will give Alberta’s highest court an important opportunity to consider the circumstances in which casual drug users are protected under human rights legislation based on the perceived disability doctrine. This has been an issue that has caused some uncertainty since the Ontario Court of Appeal’s landmark Entrop v. Imperial Oil judgement in 2000.

Kellogg Brown & Root is about an employee who was terminated 10 days into employment after a pre-employment drug test came back positive for cannabis. He was never impaired at work and testified that that he was only a casual marijuana user. In 2005, an Alberta Human Rights Panel dismissed the employee’s complaint because it was not based on any real or perceived disability and, alternatively, because the testing policy was not reasonably necessary.

In June 2006 the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench reviewed all of the case law on perceived disability and acknowledged that there is a “difference of opinion” over the right of casual drug users to protection from discrimination. In the end, it chose to adopt the approach taken in Entrop, which allows for a finding of prima facie discrimination based on the circumstances in which the relevant distinction is made. As in Entrop, the Court held that the complainant was treated as if he was drug dependent and likely to report to work impaired. Recall that the policy in Entrop explicitly stated, “In the cycle of substance abuse, users frequently experimenting with drugs progress to the dependent user state later on.” The Court held that this approach to casual users could be implied in any zero tolerance policy and (criticizing a significant Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decision called Milazzo) held that an employer cannot defend against a discrimination claim by proving a subjective belief that the complainant was a casual user.

The Court then held that pre-employment testing was not reasonably necessary to satisfying the objective of “prohibiting workplace impairment.” Its reasoning is summarized in the following sentence: “While there is a rational connection between impairment and job performance, the link between a positive pre-employment urine test and workplace impairment is tenuous and uses predictions based on statistical risk to bar particular people.” More significantly, the Court suggested a number of ways by which the employer could have built a standard which was more accommodative and better connected to the goal of prohibiting (by predicting) workplace impairment.

Incidentally, and implicitly recognizing that the prima facie discrimination analysis in drug testing cases is tortuous, the Court commented that its okay that human rights legislation may be doing “the work of privacy rights.” Since Alberta employers are subject to employment privacy legislation (the Alberta Personal Information Protection Act) and since Oil Sands employers are clearly applying strict drug testing policies, we might expect a statement on drug testing from the Alberta Information and Privacy Commissioner in the near future. In fact, a PIPA complaint was filed against Kellogg Brown & Root that was recently dismissed on jurisdictional grounds. Until the Privacy Commissioner gets his chance to speak, the Kellogg Brown & Root Alberta Court of Appeal case is the one to watch.