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.