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Random Drug Tests Do Not Violate Kansas Guard's Fourth, Fourteenth Amendment Rights, Tenth Circuit Holds

by Lonnie Burton

On February 6, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed a decision of a Kansas federal district court judge dismissing a lawsuit filed by a former juvenile detention lieutenant who was fired after a random drug screening tested positive for cocaine. The court found that prison and jail staff have no expectation to be free from random drug searches absent the probable cause and warrant requirements of the Fourth Amendment.

Roderick Washington was employed as a lieutenant at the Wyandotte County Juvenile Detention Center in Kansas City, and had been employed there in one capacity or another since 1995. He was promoted to his current position in 2002, and his job duties included areas described as "safety sensitive positions." Wyandotte County has a comprehensive random drug testing policy that applies to all employees in such positions. Specifically, "juvenile lieutenant" is listed as a position subject to random drug screenings.

Washington passed all previous drug tests, until 2012 when he tested positive for cocaine. After a second test confirmed the finding, Washington was fired. He pursued every available grievance and administrative appeal in an attempt to get his job back, but all were denied. He then filed a complaint in Kansas federal court, alleging (1) the drug test amounted to an unconstitutional search in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, (2) he was deprived of employment without due process of law, and (3) the county created policies in violation of state contract law.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the County on all claims, and Washington appealed. The Tenth Circuit affirmed, holding that each of Washington claims were barred by well-settled law.

As to Washington's Fourth Amendment probable cause claim, the Tenth Circuit said the district court got it right in dismissing this issue. Noting the "special need" in a corrections setting, and especially a juvenile detention setting, to "ensure the safety and welfare of the children housed" there, the court found that Washington's privacy interests did not outweigh the County's interest in safety and welfare.

Finding the drug (urine) test to be "minimally invasive," the Tenth Circuit rejected Washington's privacy argument because "the undisputed material facts establish that the County's safety interests apply to his position." The court distinguished between Washington's job which has constant and routine contact with the juveniles, and an administrative position, for example, which doesn't. Because there was a "risk he could expose residents to illegal drugs," the County's interests prevailed and the County could not be subject to § 1983 liability for a Fourth Amendment violation, the court ruled.

The appellate court also found Washington's Fourteenth Amendment due process arguments similarly meritless. Washington claimed he was denied due process prior to being fired and later when he was denied a hearing to clear his name. Because Washington was an at-will employee of the County, the Court found that Kansaspublic employment law does not "create a claim of entitlement to continued employment."

"Because Washington does not present independent, probative evidence bearing on the issue" of the County's intent to modify his at-will status, Washington has no property interest in his employment and thus "there can be no violation of Due Process," the court said.

Finding his remaining due process claim to be conclusory and "without factual or legal support," the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court's order of dismissal on this ground as well. Nowhere in his complaint, the court said, did Washington explain why the post-termination hearings he received failed to satisfy due process.

The court finally affirmed the dismissal of the state contract law claim, having already concluded that Washington failed to show that the County's conduct or policies created an implied employment contract. See: Washington v. Unified Government of Wyandotte County, No. 15-3181 (10th Cir. 2017).

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Related legal case

Washington v. Unified Government of Wyandotte County