Drug Testing Training for Employers and Service Agents: Lessons from Edgerton's Failure

  • By: Andrew David Easler, Esq.
  • Published: Jun, 1 2020
  • Updated: Nov, 4 2023

Edgerton v. State Personnel Board involved a dispute between the Department of Transportation (“Caltrans”) and the International Union of Operating Engineers (“IUOE”) and Perrin Edgerton.[1] Perri Edgerton was an equipment operator for Caltrans.[2] In October 1995, Edgerton failed a random drug test by testing positive for marijuana for which he was later fired.[3] After his discharge, Edgerton and Caltrans entered into a stipulated agreement before the State Personnel Board (“Board”).[4] Pursuant to the agreement, Caltrans agreed to reduce Edgerton’s dismissal to a suspension of twenty working days, and Edgerton agreed to remain drug and alcohol-free and submit to random follow-up drug testing for a specified period of time.[5] However, in January 1996 Edgerton failed a follow-up drug test by testing positive for methamphetamines and Caltrans subsequently dismissed Edgerton again.[6] Edgerton appealed the dismissal to the Board but the Board sustained the dismissal.[7]

In December 1996, Edgerton and IUOE filed a petition with the Superior Court of the City & County of San Francisco for a writ of administrative mandamus seeking to compel the Board to set aside its decision sustaining Edgerton’s dismissal.[8] The trial court granted the petition and found that the Board’s decision denied Edgerton a fair trial.[9] The trial court held that the Board’s decision was not supported by substantial evidence, the standard necessary for the court to uphold the Board’s decisions, because Caltrans failed to establish a clear chain of custody tracing Edgerton’s urine specimen from the first laboratory that tested the sample to the second confirming laboratory.[10] On appeal, Caltrans contended that the trial court erred in overturning the Board’s decision because substantial evidence was presented at the hearing to support the Board’s decision to terminate Edgerton.[11]

Chain of custody refers to procedures which account for the integrity of each urine or blood specimen by tracking its handling and storage from the point of specimen collection to final disposition of the specimen.[12] In drug testing, these procedures require that an appropriate drug testing custody form be used from the time of specimen collection to receipt by the laboratory and then upon receipt by the laboratory an appropriate laboratory chain of custody form accounts for the sample within the laboratory.[13] The testing laboratory is required to complete a chain of custody form documenting each time a specimen is handled or transferred and to identify every individual involved in the chain of custody.[14]

In addition, following the laboratory’s role in the process of a positive test result, the defensibility of those results require a demonstration that any such confirmed positive results from the laboratory have been subject to final medical review.[15] An individual with specialized knowledge of possible alternative medical explanations must review the laboratory results to avoid wrongfully subjecting an innocent employee to the consequences of a failed drug test.[16] A medical review officer (“MRO”) is charged with this task–reviewing the results before transmitting a final determination to the employer.[17] The MRO review also requires a review of the chain of custody to ensure that it is complete and sufficient on its face.[18]

To prove that Edgerton failed the drug test, Caltrans was required to show that the MRO reviewed the positive test result for “possible alternative medical explanations” and reviewed the chain of custody to ensure that it was complete and sufficient on its face.[19] Edgerton’s test was completed using the “split sample” method as required under United States Department of Transportation regulations.[20] Under this method, the collection site splits the employee’s urine sample into two separate samples.[21] In most tests, only the first sample is tested, but if the confirmatory result indicates a concentration sufficient to constitute a positive, the employee can request that the second sample be tested at a different laboratory.[22]

Edgerton’s samples were split into “A” and “B” and were sent to the first laboratory on January 24, 1996.[23] However, the laboratory did not conduct the testing of the “A” sample until January 29, 1996.[24] After being notified of the positive result, Edgerton requested that the second, “B” sample be tested.[25] The test on sample B was not conducted until February 21, 1996.[26] The court of appeals noted that there was nothing in the record to prove the storage and handling of these samples to constitute complete chain of custody during this period.[27] The MRO did not have enough information documenting the chain of custody for Edgerton’s samples after they were received by the first laboratory.[28] In fact, there was no documentation at all demonstrating the internal chain of custody at the first laboratory, including when the specimen was handled and who came into contact with it.[29]

Even though the MRO did not have any documentation demonstrating the internal chain of custody at the first laboratory, he still certified that the chain was complete and sufficient.[30] As a result, according to the court, the MRO did not properly perform his duty and the certification that the chain of custody was “complete” was erroneous. Absent complete chain of custody, Caltrans failed to prove that Edgerton had a positive drug test and, therefore, the Board could not terminate him.[31]

Edgerton highlights the importance of appropriate employee training regarding company, state, and federal protocols for managing employee drug test samples and results. The laboratory failed in maintaining appropriate record of chain of custody and delaying testing, the MRO failed in reviewing the chain of custody for accuracy and completion, and the employer’s Designated Employer Representative (DER) failed in overseeing its service agents. The DER is the employee charged with the duty to manage the company drug-free workplace policy including overseeing any adverse actions taken for violations of the policy; as a result, the DER must be familiar with the relevant company policies and procedures, state regulations and common law, and applicable federal law to be able to effectively carry out the DER’s duties. Absent appropriate training like in the Edgerton case, the failure to adhere to procedures can result in liability and indefensible adverse actions against employees.

We are an education company, not a law firm. The information and content we provide is for general informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. We make no representations, warranties, or guarantees regarding the accuracy, completeness, or applicability of the content. It is important to always consult with a qualified attorney for specific legal counsel pertaining to your individual circumstances.

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