This is the fourth hypothetical in our series showing how well-intentioned employers can violate unfamiliar state laws.
A manager of a Minneapolis, Minnesota restaurant calls you regarding an employee who showed up for work exhibiting bizarre behavior and with white powder under her nose. The Company has a written policy prohibiting the use of illegal drugs and authorizing the Company to conduct probable cause testing of employees. In accordance with Company policy, the employee undergoes testing which confirms that the employee is under the influence of cocaine. The manager is calling for approval to terminate the employee. You know that some states prohibit random drug testing, but you are not aware of any law that would prohibit an employer from discharging an employee who shows up for work under the influence of cocaine, especially when the employer has probable cause to test the employee and the testing confirms the employee’s use of an illegal drug. You authorize the termination.
The employee sues the Company under the Minnesota Drug and Alcohol Testing in the Workplace Act, which prohibits employers from discharging an employee who tests positive for illegal drugs on only one occasion. See Minn. Stat. §181.950, et seq. Under these circumstances, the employer has a statutory obligation to offer the employee the opportunity to participate in a rehabilitation program at the employer’s expense. The employee prevails and is reinstated to her former position. In addition, the employee is awarded back pay, attorneys’ fees, and $500,000 in punitive damages to punish this out-of-state employer for not familiarizing itself with Minnesota’s laws.
As the series of hypotheticals illustrate, there are state laws lurking out there with counter-intuitive prohibitions and serious penalties. To further complicate matters, new state laws are passed regularly, making it virtually impossible for large employers to stay apprised of all of the laws passed at the state level. Thus, it is important to research applicable state (and municipal and county) law and to consult local employment counsel whenever possible.