Following termination stemming from a positive drug test for marijuana, a Native American female, appearing pro se, filed a federal lawsuit against her former employer, Mohave County’s Public Works Department. She alleged discrimination based on race and/or ancestry, a violation of her rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and a violation of due process rights. On July 19, 2016, Senior U.S. District Judge for the District of Arizona, James A. Teilborg, issued an order granting summary judgment for the defendant Mohave County on all claims. Yazzie v. County of Mohave, No. CV-14-08153 (July 19, 2016).

Factual Background

Plaintiff Vina Yazzie worked for Mohave County, Arizona, for over 17 years—most recently as a road maintenance worker specialist. In her position, plaintiff was required to maintain a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL). Employees with a CDL, such as Yazzie, who operate commercial vehicles, are considered to be in safety-sensitive positions and are subject to random drug tests. The county had clear rules governing the discipline of employees who tested positive for drugs or alcohol while on duty. If an employee in a safety-sensitive position, such as plaintiff’s, tested positive for drugs while on duty, the employee was subject to immediate dismissal.

On July 15, 2013, Yazzie was selected for a random drug screen, and tested positive. When confronted with her test results, Yazzie asserted that the result was a false positive because she had taken Marinol, a prescription drug. Yazzie knew that the county prohibited the use of marijuana, and had acknowledged and received training on the County’s drug policies. Later, Yazzie admitted that she did not take Marinol, and had instead engaged in recreational marijuana use. On August 6, 2013, Mohave County terminated Yazzie’s employment based on her positive drug test for marijuana.

Yazzie filed suit, and defendant moved for summary judgment. In her complaint, she raised a disparate treatment claim alleging that similarly situated, non-Native American employees, who violated the county’s drug and alcohol policies, were not discharged. Yazzie, however, presented no evidence that non-Native American employees were treated more favorably. Instead, the evidence showed that during the relevant period, 10 employees in safety-sensitive positions in her department had failed drug or alcohol impairment tests, and all the employees had been discharged or had resigned in lieu of discharge. Moreover, the court found that Mohave County had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for Yazzie’s termination—namely, her violation of the county’s drug and alcohol policy. Because Yazzie had failed a drug test and admitted to marijuana use, the county’s decision to discharge her fell entirely within the county’s policies, and there was no evidence that the reason for her discharge had been pretextual. In addition to dismissing plaintiff’s race/ancestry discrimination claim, the court dismissed Yazzie’s FMLA claim because it was barred by the statute of limitations, and dismissed her due process claim for lack of evidence.

Key Takeaways

The case shows that treating employees who test positive for prohibited substances, such as marijuana, consistently in terms of discipline may help employers avoid disparate treatment claims. Here, Mohave County successfully defended against Yazzie’s discrimination claim because it had established drug and alcohol policies clearly identifying the consequences of failing a drug or alcohol impairment test, and had uniformly applied this policy to all employees in safety-sensitive positions.

With the increase in the number of states that have legalized medical or recreational marijuana, it is imperative, now more than ever, that employers implement policies clearly outlining any prohibitions on the use of drugs and/or alcohol. Employers may want to consider periodically engaging in a review of their drug and alcohol polices to ensure that they are keeping up with the changing legal landscape, and are implementing best practices in their workplaces.