SAN FRANCISCO — A potentially far-reaching lawsuit was filed Thursday challenging private employers' use of drug tests for job applicants in California.
Attorneys who brought the class-action suit in Alameda Superior Court said it is the first such action against pre-employment drug and alcohol testing in the private sector. Other suits, brought mainly against public agencies, have met with mixed results around the country.
The action was brought against Times Mirror Books and other defendants by two UC Berkeley graduates who said they had been denied writing and editing jobs after they refused to take drug tests required by Matthew Bender & Co., a legal publishing firm and subsidiary of Times Mirror Books.
The suit contends that across-the-board drug and alcohol screening violates the state constitutional right to privacy and several state statutes, including those that bar unfair business practices and the disclosure of confidential medical information.
The action asks the court to declare pre-employment drug testing unlawful, issue an injunction prohibiting the practice and award the plaintiffs unspecified damages.
Edward M. Chen, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California representing the plaintiffs, noted that recent surveys indicate nearly one-third of the nation's largest companies, in the drive for a safer and more productive workplace, impose some form of tests. Most programs, he said, involve pre-employment testing.
"Drug tests are not being limited to safety-sensitive industries," Chen said. "They now have spread to all sorts of white-collar occupations, including such mundane and harmless jobs as news reporting."
Lynne Pou, vice president of human resources for Matthew Bender, acknowledged that all Times Mirror companies--including the Los Angeles Times--require drug tests for job applicants.
'Good and Lawful Reasons'
"The policy was instituted for good and lawful reasons," Pou said. "We feel all employees have the right to work in an environment free of drugs and alcohol."
Safety, efficiency and productivity also were among the considerations for the policy, she said.
The suit, outlined at a news conference here, follows a wide variety of legal challenges in recent months to the growing practice of requiring drug tests for employees.
Thus far, legal actions have targeted the policies of public employers and, in some instances, private employer requirements for workers already on the payroll.
Last month, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Federal Railroad Administration regulations requiring that all crew members on a train involved in a serious accident submit blood and urine samples immediately for tests.
But in another case, a federal appeals court in the District of Columbia last November ruled that public schools there could legally test certain employees for drug use.
Similarly, a federal appellate panel in New Orleans upheld the drug-testing requirements for certain employees of the U.S. Customs Service. On Feb. 29, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case, setting the stage for what may be a major ruling on tests required of federal employees.
The suit filed Thursday, involving questions of state law, could set similarly wide-reaching guidelines for the workplace in California's private sector, if and when the issue reaches the state Supreme Court.
Applied for Copy Editor Job
One of the plaintiffs in the suit, Kathleen Wilkinson, a graduate in English from UC Berkeley, said she had applied for a job as copy editor at Matthew Bender's offices in Berkeley. After several interviews, she said, she had been told the job was hers, provided she passed a drug test.
"When I told them that I objected to taking the test, they told me I was free not to take it--but of course I wouldn't be hired," Wilkinson said.
Rina Hirai, a graduate of UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall Law School, said her application for a job as legal writer had been withdrawn by the firm because she refused to agree to a drug test.
"I was appalled," Hirai said. "I felt a drug and alcohol test was totally irrelevant to the job and an invasion of privacy."