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Employee Gets Trial After Testing Positive for Methadone

Steel Painters LLC conditionally hired Matthew Kimball as a certified industrial painter. Kimball was a recovering opioid addict, having developed his addiction to pain medication following a prior injury on the job. He had attended a drug rehabilitation program after which he was given an ongoing prescription for methadone. In providing his medical history for Steel Painters, Kimball disclosed that he took methadone, underwent a medical screening, and began working the next day. The drug screening showed his use of methadone. When Steel Painters received the information, he was removed from the job. Kimball showed the testing facility that he had a prescription; the company indicated that he had a “negative result.” Kimball was required to have his doctor affirm that he could perform safety-sensitive positions while on methadone. Kimball’s physician refused to sign the form on privacy grounds but did verify the prescription and offered to provide additional information over the phone. Steel Painters fired Kimball when he did not have a signed form, asserting “we don’t normally hire people on methadone.”
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit on Kimball’s behalf, alleging a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Through Kimball’s testimony detailing the mental and physical impact from his addiction to opioids and the resulting withdrawal, he was able to show his disability. Kimball asserted that he needed the methadone to avoid withdrawal symptoms and stop him from relapsing. A key question for the federal district court was whether Kimball’s use of methadone made him unqualified for his safety-sensitive position. Kimball had worked as an industrial painter while taking methadone for several years without any incidents related to it. Because Kimball had worked for several days for Steel Painters as well as the fact that the company had refused to send him to their doctor to determine any threat and it did not seek any more information, a jury could conclude that he was qualified i.e., would not pose a risk to the health and safety of others that could be accommodated. In addition, comments made by the company at his termination, including a blanket prohibition against methadone users working in  “refinery, safety-sensitive work,” reflected possible bias that could support discrimination.