The Rhode Island Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of a lawsuit against an employer who terminated an employee for refusing to submit to a reasonable suspicion drug test, even though the employee’s odd behaviors could have been attributable to pain or other things. Colpitts v. W.B. Mason Co., Inc., No. 2018-337-Appeal (R.I. May 29, 2020).

The plaintiff, Michael Colpitts, claimed that his former employer required him to take a drug test, allegedly without “reasonable grounds” as required by the Rhode Island drug testing law, R.I. Gen. Laws § 28-6.5-1(a)(1). That law permits testing when the “employer has reasonable grounds to believe, based on specific aspects of the employee’s job performance and specific contemporaneous documented observations, concerning the employee’s appearance, behavior or speech that the employee may be under the influence of a controlled substance, which may be impairing his or her ability to perform his or her job.”

Colpitts was employed as a supply delivery driver for W.B. Mason. He began using medical marijuana for pain as well as post-traumatic stress disorder in 2017, but he testified that he never used marijuana while working and never was impaired at work. He also did not disclose to his employer in 2017 that he had begun using medical marijuana. On March 5, 2018, Colpitts alleged that he injured his arm and back while effecting a delivery as part of his job. When he returned to the worksite and reported his injury, he was questioned by his supervisor and the branch manager. They determined that he might be impaired due to their observations that Colpitts: was stuttering and swearing excessively, was “jumping all over the place,” was confused and had difficulty describing his injuries, did not speak in complete sentences, was staggering and bending over, and stating “I’m f***ed up,” among other things. After his supervisor and branch manager advised Colpitts that he would have to go for drug testing, he insisted that he was “fine” and “got very agitated.” On the way to the collection facility, Colpitts disclosed that he used medical marijuana and that he would probably test positive for marijuana. Once he arrived at the collection facility, Colpitts refused to be drug tested but agreed to an alcohol test. The alcohol test was negative. His employment was terminated because he violated Company policy by refusing the drug test.

After a trial, the court ruled in favor of the employer, finding the employer’s witnesses to be credible and further finding that Colpitts’ “incoherent recitation,” “volatile behavior,” and “the use of profanity” was sufficient to support “reasonable grounds” for drug testing under Rhode Island law.

On appeal, Colpitts argued that there was no evidence that he was under the influence of drugs, and that his behaviors were due to the pain that resulted from his injuries. The Supreme Court held that the trial justice did not abuse her discretion in ruling in favor of the employer. Moreover, the Supreme Court did not agree with Colpitts’ argument that because his behavior “could” have been pain-related, there was no basis for drug testing. Even if his odd behavior had been due to pain, rather than drugs, the employer still had reasonable grounds to believe that Colpitts may have been under the influence of drugs. The Rhode Island drug testing statute does not require an employer to be certain that an employee is under the influence of drugs or alcohol.