If an airman tests positive for drug metabolites on a drug test but he or she didn't take the drugs, what can the airman do? Well, arguing that he or she somehow unknowingly or inadvertently ingested the drugs isn't going to save the day. A recent decision by the National Transportation Safety Board ("NTSB") rejected an airman's "unknowing ingestion" affirmative defense in that very situation.
In Administrator v. Hermance the airman submitted to a random drug test which indicated that the airman tested positive for cocaine metabolites. As in almost every case, the FAA revoked all of the airman's certificates based upon the positive drug test. The airman then appealed the revocation to the NTSB.
Prior to a hearing, the FAA moved for summary judgment arguing that the positive drug test and the airman's admission that the test was positive presented a prima facie case that the airman had violated the applicable drug testing and medical qualification regulations. The ALJ agreed that the FAA had proven its case, but the ALJ ordered a hearing to allow the airman to present evidence regarding his affirmative defenses, one of which was that he had unknowingly ingested the cocaine.
At the hearing before the NTSB administrative law judge ("ALJ"), the airman was adamant that he did not do drugs and had not ingested cocaine. He even paid several visits to his physician who was unable to determine how the cocaine metabolites ended up in the airman's urine. The airman's wife and several other witnesses also testified that the airman did not do drugs.
At the end of the hearing, the ALJ ruled that the airman's claim that he unknowingly ingested the cocaine was not a "reasonable medical explanation" for a positive drug test under DOT regulations. The ALJ determined that neither the airman nor any of his witnesses offered an explanation or reasonable theory for how the airman's tested urine specimen contained cocaine metabolites. In the absence of the necessary proof, the ALJ found the airman failed to satisfy his burden of proving his affirmative defense of unknown ingestion. As a result, the ALF affirmed the FAA's revocation order.
On appeal to the full Board, the airman again argued that he had proven his affirmative defense of unknown ingestion which explained and excused the positive drug test result. The Board initially observed that the airman had the burden of proving not only that unknowing ingestion was a legally justifiable excuse but also that he factually proved that affirmative defense.
The Board then cited 49 C.F.R. § 40.151(d), which specifically and categorically rejects the defense of unknown ingestion:
For example, an employee may tell [medical review officers (MROs)] that someone slipped amphetamines into her drink at a party [or] that she unknowingly ingested a marijuana brownie....MROs are unlikely to be able to verify the facts of such passive or unknowing ingestion stories. Even if true, such stories do not present a legitimate medical explanation. Consequently, [MROs] must not declare a test as negative based on an explanation of this kind.
The Board also observed that its precedent has consistently rejected unknown ingestion as a legitimate medical explanation for a positive drug test result.
However, even though the unknown ingestion affirmative defense was previously rejected, the Board concluded that the ALJ's granting a hearing to the airman regarding the affirmative defense was appropriate because it allowed the airman a full opportunity to offer evidence to support a legitimate medical explanation, if one existed. Unfortunately for the airman, the Board affirmed the ALJ's determination that the airman's evidence did not suffice to establish that he never ingested cocaine or that a legitimate medical explanation existed for the presence of the cocaine metabolites in his urine.
Thus, the affirmative defense of "unknown ingestion" or "inadvertent ingestion" will not, without more, save an airman from a positive drug test result. Fortunately, the airman should have an opportunity to prove some other legitimate medical explanation for the positive result. However, the airman will have the burden of proof; a burden that, unfortunately, is often not easy to meet. But at least it is a chance.
If you work in a safety-sensitive position for an employer subject to Department of Transportation drug and alcohol testing requirements (e.g. Part 121 and 135 carriers, as well as maintenance providers who maintain aircraft on behalf of those carriers, or operators who conduct non-stop sightseeing flights for compensation or hire under FAR 91.147), you have likely been asked at some point during your employment to submit to a drug or alcohol test. You are also probably aware of the severe consequences imposed upon a safety-sensitive employee for failure to submit to a test when requested (termination of employment, revocation of the employee's airman certificates, to name a few).
However, what happens when the employee believes he or she is complying with a request but the employer regards the employee's conduct as a refusal? Well, when the FAA initiates a revocation action, the employee will, unfortunately, have to defend his or her rights. But an airman/employee in that situation isn't without hope, as we see in a recent National Transportation Safety Board ("NTSB") case.
In Administrator v. Rojas, the NTSB affirmed an administrative law judge's ("ALJ") dismissal of an emergency order revoking all of an airman's certificates for allegedly refusing to submit to a drug test. The FAA's revocation order alleged that the airman, a pilot for Pinnacle Airlines, refused to submit to a drug test in violation of FAR Part 121, App. I (previously defining refusal to submit to a drug test, but now replaced by 49 C.F.R. Part 40), FAR 67.107(b)2 (a refusal to submit to a drug or alcohol test is considered "substance abuse", a disqualifying medical condition) and 49 C.F.R. § 40.191(a)(1) (defining "refusal" to submit to a drug test). As a result, the FAA issued an emergency order revoking all of the airman's certificates. The airman then appealed the FAA's order to the NTSB for a hearing before an ALJ.
The Hearing Before The ALJ
At the hearing, the FAA presented evidence in support of its allegations that the airman had been selected for a random drug test, was notified of the drug test and then refused to submit to the drug test. The airman presented evidence that the airline employee who allegedly notified him of the drug test never received training relating to drug-testing and, in fact, after notifying the airman of his selection for testing then told the airman that he did not need to submit to the test until a later time.
At the conclusion of the hearing, the ALJ determined that the airman's evidence was more credible. He specifically found that although the airman did not take the drug test, he did not lack the qualifications to hold an ATP or first-class medical certificate as alleged by the FAA. Further, he credited witness testimony that the airline employee withdrew her request for a drug test, and did not notify the airman that she would consider his statement concerning the lack of sufficient time to complete the test to be a refusal. Of course, the FAA then appealed the ALJ's decision to the full Board.
The Appeal To The NTSB
On appeal, the FAA argued that the ALJ's decision was contrary to the weight of the evidence, and that his conclusions of law were wrong. The FAA took the position that the airman's intentions were irrelevant. According to the FAA, when presented with a request to submit to a drug test, you either take or you don't. Since the evidence presented by the FAA showed that the airman did not take the test, the FAA argued that the airman refused the test.
The Board initially observed that much of the ALJ's decision was based upon his credibility determinations and that "resolution of a credibility determination, unless made in an arbitrary or capricious manner or unless clearly erroneous, is within the exclusive province of the law judge." It went on to note that it could not withhold deference to an ALJ's credibility findings simply because other evidence in the record could have been given greater weight by the ALJ.
Next, the Board stated that "cases concerning refusals to submit to drug tests involve fact-specific inquiries." It then held that, based upon the evidence credited by the ALJ, it could not find that the airman's conduct constituted a refusal. The Board further concluded that the ALJ's credibility determinations were not arbitrary, capricious, or contrary to the weight of the evidence, despite the FAA's attempts to re-argue facts that the ALJ had clearly discounted.
This case highlights the merit of appealing a revocation order based upon an alleged refusal to submit to drug-testing. Given the appropriate facts, as were present in this case, it is possible to have the FAA's order dismissed, if the airman can persuade the ALJ that he or she did not refuse to submit to the drug test. Unfortunately, this isn't always possible. However, if the airman is successful, this case demonstrates that the Board should defer to the ALJ's decision if/when the FAA appeals.
For more information regarding aviation law, safety and security, e-mail Greg at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.aerolegalservices.com.
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