An airline pilot fails his company’s random drug test and admits to using marijuana. His airline fires him. That seems simple enough, doesn’t it? The struggle between a Seattle-area pilot and airline company has recently shown that employment law is not always quite as simple as you might think.
A recent article in the Seattle Post Intelligencer reports that, in 2011, the Seattle-based Horizon Airlines conducted a random drug test on one of its pilots, Brian Milam. As a first officer, Milam was required to maintain a certificate from the Federal Aviation Association that confirmed that he had not used drugs illegally in the prior two years and that he was healthy to fly. Horizon conducts such drug tests, which Milam admitted was properly administered in his case, to comply with federal requirements that help ensure that pilots are not using controlled substances or abusing alcohol.
Milam was the first pilot to fail the test since Horizon Airlines began testing its pilots in 1989, and admitted that he had smoked marijuana one to three times per week in the six months before his failed test. He claimed that he used marijuana to deal with his back pain and other issues, but that he never smoked while on duty or before a shift. Horizon claims that Milam flew their airplanes “with marijuana in his system” at least twice, but did not say that he flew while actually high.
Milam challenged his firing in an out-of-court arbitration session in which the Airline Professionals Association, his Teamsters union branch, represented him. The arbitrator, Cliff Freed, found that – despite the seriousness of Milam’s behavior in failing to remain drug-free, and despite the fact that a failed drug test would be enough to fire him under the company’s rules – Horizon had erred in the way that it had gone about firing Milam.
According to Freed, Horizon’s own rules required that the company review an employee’s files to determine whether terminating or retaining the employee was in the company’s best interest. In addition to this review, Horizon policy required that a substance abuse counselor found the employee fit for work. In Milam’s case, Horizon’s substance abuse counselor found him fit for work after he underwent drug abuse evaluation and treatment. However, Horizon failed to conduct a full review of Milam’s record prior to firing him in accordance with its own drug policies, and therefore, according to Freed, his termination was invalid.
Horizon Airlines, of course, claims that the termination was entirely valid and that it wants to fire Milam to ensure the safety of its passengers. The company has filed suit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington to get Freed’s arbitration judgment invalidated. Horizon claims that Freed misunderstood the employee labor contract in making his decision, and that not being allowed to fire Milam would go against public and company policy.
This will be a very interesting case to watch, because it illustrates the ways in which even seemingly obvious cases can turn on the specifics within a company’s employment policies. If you or someone you know believe that your company failed to follow proper procedures in terminating your employment, please contact one of ourattorneys to help you evaluate your case