Superior Court Rules On Several Claims Under R.I. Drug Testing Statute

| Jul 10, 2013 | Firm News

The Rhode Island Superior Court has issued a decision addressing several claims by employees against their employer and other employees pursuant to the Rhode Island Drug Testing Statutue, R.I.G.L. 28-6.5.1, et seq.  The court held that individual employees of a corporation could not be held civilly liable under the Statute, that they may not be held liable for violations of the Statute pursuant to a separate statute creating civil liability of for crimes, R.I.G.L. 9-1-2, that plaintiffs’ invasion of privacy claims against their employer were barred by the exclusive remedy of workers compensation, and, plaintiffs could recover for their emotional distress under the Statute.

Plaintiffs were employees of the defendant corporation.  They allege they were directed to report to mandatory meetings and subjected to illegal drug testing during those meetings.  They brought claims agains the corporation and other corporate employees alleging civil liability for violation of the R.I. Drug Testing Statute, civil liability under the criminal provisions of the Statute and a separate statute that provides for civil liability for criminal offenses and invasion of their right to privacy.

The defendant employees moved for judgment on the pleadings arguing employees cannot be held civilly under the Statute.  All the defendants argued that the Workers Compensation Statute barred the claim for invasion of privacy.  Defendants moved for partial summary judgment arguing there could be no recovery for emotional distress under the Statute.

The Statute generally prohibits employers and their employees from requesting or requiring employees to submit to blood or urine testing unless the testing complies with various requirements of the Statute.  The Statute provides that the employer can be criminally liable for violations.  It also provides for civil actions alleging violations of the Statute and that in such actions the court may award punitive damages in addition to “actual damages,” award reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs to a prevailing employee, enter injunctive relief against an employer that violates or proposes to violate the Statute.

The court first determined that the Legislature did not intend to impose civil liablity on individual employees for violations, only on employers.  It noted the “long-settled” rule that agents acting on behalf of a disclosed principal are not personally liable to a third party for actions within the scope of their authority.  In addition, the Statute made clear that it is the employer’s responsibility to comply with the complex testing prequisites, not the employee’s duty.  To hold the employee could be civilly liable would require an employee to supervise the employer.  The court also observed that the Statute only subjected the employer to potential injunctive relief.  The court said the Legislature has in other contexts clearly made employees civilly liable when that was its intention.  Finally, the court said analogous federal statutes supported this interpretation.

The court held that since employees could not be held criminally liable under the Statute, they could not be held liable under a separate statute that provides for civil liable for criminal acts, R.I.G.L. 9-1-2.

The court said the exclusive remedy of workers compensation barred the claims for invasion of privacy against all defendants under the Right to Privacy Act, R.I.G.L. 9-1-28.1.  The court noted specific decisions by the Supreme Court barring such claims under that Act.

Finally, the court said the Statute’s provision providing for the recovery of “actual damages” was not limited to economic damages but could include emotional distress.  The court said federal decisions interpreting that phrase to exclude emotional damages were based on sovereign immunity. The Statute includes a waiver of soveriegn immunity.

Alves v. Cintas Corporation No. 2, P.C. 2009-2412 (R.I. Super. July 8, 2013).

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