A middle school physical education teacher was undergoing testing for cocaine metabolites as part of ongoing divorce proceedings. His wife’s attorney submitted a positive cocaine test to the teacher’s school district. When the human resources director requested the teacher to undergo an immediate urine test for cocaine metabolite, the teacher refused. He was suspended by his district.
Background: T.M., a male middle school physical education teacher, was going through divorce litigation. His wife’s attorney obtained copies of his recent drug test showing positive results for cocaine in his system. The wife’s attorney sent a copy of T.M.'s drug test results to Bethlehem Area School District (District).
Upon receipt of the letter with the test results on February 2, District’s Human Resource Director (Director) met with T.M. and his union representative. The Director requested T.M. submit to a drug test, warning him if he did not comply, he would be putting his job in jeopardy. T.M. refused the test and the Director placed him on unpaid suspension.
On February 8, the Director once again directed T.M.to submit to a drug test “based upon reasonable suspicion of” his drug use in violation of District policy and the PA School Code. Mr. Metz submitted to this drug test on February 9. This drug test was positive for cocaine metabolites. On February 10, District sent T.M. a Loudermill notice. This notice informed him that he would be discharged due to neglect of duties and immoral conduct. T.M. waived his right to a pre-termination hearing.
On March 7, the District sent T.M. a Statement of Charges and Notice of Hearing. The hearing was held on April 28. The Director recommended to the District's Board that T.M.be discharged because he tested positive for cocaine and that he had told the Director its not a big deal to test positive for cocaine because "...a lot of people do that."
On May 7, the District's Board recommended that T.M. be terminated. He appealed his termination to the PA Secretary of Education, who later affirmed his District’s termination.
Issues before Commonwealth Court: On appeal, T.M. argued that the District did not meet its burden of proving that he had engaged in immoral conduct by submitting the single positive drug test result. Because the District lacked "reasonable suspicion" to order the drug test result, those results were obtained in violation of his rights against illegal searches and seizures both under the 4th Amendment of the US Constitution and within the PA Constitution.
Opinion: The Court’s opinion stated that the letter to the District, by T.M.’s wife’s attorney, constituted a reliable source. As a result, once the District had the test results, it possessed "reasonable suspicion" to request T.M., while at work, to take a drug test. Because public school teachers hold "safety-sensitive jobs," the District's request for their own test was justified. T.M.'s positive result for cocaine on the District's test confirmed the District's suspicion that he may have been teaching while under the influence of a controlled substance. This is evidence of immoral conduct under the Public School Code. The Secretary's decision was affirmed.
Importance: The definition of “reasonable suspicion” to justify an immediate drug test was modified in this case. The unusual circumstances by which the District came upon the information that one of its employees may be under the influence while teaching made this set of facts unique. Perhaps more litigants will follow the example here to injure the other party. Educators also need to be aware of the court’s lower expectation of privacy recognized to be held by government employees. 2-23-2021
Bethlehem Area SD v. T.M. 177 A3rd 384 (Pa. Commonwealth Court, 2017)
Attorney John S. Harrison for T.M.
Attorney Donald F. Spry II for Bethlehem Area School District (District)