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Glendale to Appeal Ban on Workers' Drug Tests

September 10, 1987|MARTHA L. WILLMAN | Times Staff Writer

Glendale city officials said Wednesday they will appeal a ruling by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge who ordered a temporary halt to the city's drug-abuse screening program, the first such order against a government employer in California.

The outcome of an appeal could set a precedent on the validity of drug-testing policies in cities throughout the state, according to Gary Williams, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union in Los Angeles.

While the ACLU has challenged the legality of a number of drug-screening programs operated by cities and private employers, none of the suits has reached the state appellate court, Williams and other attorneys said. Glendale's appeal is expected to become the first.

'The Most Egregious'

The suit against Glendale was filed by the ACLU last year because, Williams said, the city's sweeping drug-screening policy "is the most egregious" in the country.

Judge Jerome K. Fields on Tuesday ruled that Glendale's law, which requires drug and alcohol testing of all applicants for city jobs and nearly all city employees seeking a promotion, is "a wholesale, indiscriminate test" that violates state and federal constitutions.

"We plan to take action to have the judge's decision reviewed because we think he made a mistake," Glendale City Manager James M. Rez said.

Fields' ruling this week reversed another Superior Court decision last year rejecting the ACLU claim. Judge Richard Lavine in December ruled that the original plaintiff in the suit, a Glendale resident who is not a city employee, had failed to show that she was personally injured by the drug-testing policy.

The plaintiff, Lorraine Loder, a 34-year-old attorney who is also not a city employee, claims that the testing policy violates an individual's rights to privacy and wastes tax dollars. About $15,000 has been spent on the 13-month-old screening program, according to city officials.

In answer to the earlier court ruling, the ACLU added a second plaintiff in addition Loder to their suit, an unidentified city employee labeled "John Doe 41." But Fields this week ignored the earlier court ruling and accepted the ACLU's original complaint.

'Totally Erroneous'

Glendale City Atty. Frank R. Manzano called the action "totally erroneous." He said it is unusual for a Superior Court judge to overrule another decision by a judge at the same court level.

The suit still has not gone to trial, which may be months away, and most likely will be heard by still another Superior Court judge. The suit seeks to permanently stop Glendale's policy of requiring urinalysis for all city job applicants and employees seeking promotions.

Edward M. Chen, an ACLU attorney in San Francisco specializing in drug-testing challenges, said no case has reached the appellate court. He said the ACLU suits seek to stop drug testing based on a 1974 amendment to the state Constitution that declares privacy an inalienable right. Drug tests violate that privacy, the ACLU charges.

Glendale's drug-testing policy is believed to be the most comprehensive in the nation. Most cities that have drug-testing policies screen only applicants for high-risk public service positions such as police officers, firefighters and heavy equipment operators, said Joni Culp, a researcher for the League of California Cities. Culp said 51 of the 444 cities in the state have adopted drug-screening policies--many patterned after Glendale's although usually not as stringent.

Applicants are disqualified if their urine shows amounts of controlled substances above certain standards, if they refuse to be tested or if they fail to sign waivers releasing the test results to the city.

John F. Hoffman, Glendale's personnel director, said 5.3% of about 500 applicants tested last year were identified as drug or alcohol abusers. He said those who fail the tests most often are cocaine or marijuana users.

Contracts With Laboratory

Glendale contracts with a private laboratory that analyzes urine samples for excessive levels of alcohol and for nine controlled drugs. The acceptable levels of substances were set by the laboratory to eliminate, for instance, someone who has merely inhaled marijuana smoke from someone who is smoking nearby, Hoffman said. The tests, however, cannot separate the one-time user from the chronic user, city officials said.

However, Hoffman said applicants are warned in advance about the tests. He said most drugs leave the body within a few days. "Most of those who test positive are habitual users," Hoffman said. "They're addicted and can't stay off drugs long enough to pass the test."

The city adopted the mandatory testing program after a pilot drug-screening program in 1985 found that 20% of new applicants tested were abusers.

Hoffman maintains the 20% figure is "the societal norm of drug abusers." He said the 5% failure rate in the last year indicates that fewer abusers are applying for jobs in Glendale. "Glendale sent the word out with the national media coverage" the city has received since it began the testing program, Hoffman said. "The habitual users know they can't apply here."

Glendale Mayor Ginger Bremberg said she was "absolutely astonished" by the court action Tuesday. She suggested that the ACLU be held accountable if an injury or accident occurs as a result of a city employee's drug use.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors last year pledged to support Glendale in its fight with the ACLU. In the wake of the court action Tuesday, Supervisor Mike Antonovich said, "No one has a right to a government job, but the public has a right to expect that public employees in sensitive positions are not drug users."

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