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Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives’ Association

Citation. 489 U.S. 602, 109 S. Ct. 1402, 103 L. Ed. 2d 639, 13 OSHC 2065, 130 LRRM 2857, 4 IER Cases 224 (1989)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Alcohol and drug use on the American Railroads caused officials to promulgate various regulations.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

“[A] warrant is [not] essential to render the intrusions here at issue reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”
“[T]the alcohol and drug tests contemplated by Subparts C and D of the [Federal Railroad Administration’s] regulations are reasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.”


Various rules applicable to railway employees were promulgated in order to combat both the possession of alcohol or being intoxicated while working. Rules were also promulgated to stop the use of drugs. “These restrictions are embodied in ‘Rule G,’ an industry-wide operating rule promulgated by the Association of American Railroads, and are enforced, in various formulations, by virtually every railroad in the country. The customary sanction for Rule G violations is dismissal.” “In July 1983, the FRA expressed concern that these industry efforts were not adequate to curb alcohol and drug abuse by railroad employees. The FRA pointed to evidence indicating that on-the-job intoxication was a significant problem in the railroad industry.” ” In view of the obvious safety hazards of drug and alcohol use by railroad employees, the FRA announced in June 1984 its intention to promulgate federal regulations on the subject.”
Further, “[c]omments submitted in response to [these findings] indicated that railroads were able to detect a relatively small number of Rule G violations, owing, primarily, to their practice of relying on observation by supervisors and co-workers to enforce the rule.” “After reviewing further comments from representatives of the railroad industry, labor groups, and the general public, the FRA, in 1985, promulgated regulations addressing the problem of alcohol and drugs on the railroads.” “The regulations further prohibit those employees from reporting for covered service while under the influence of, or impaired by, alcohol, while having a blood alcohol concentration of 0.04 or more, or while under the influence of, or impaired by, any controlled substance. The regulations do not restrict, however, a railroad’s authority to impose an absolute prohibition on the presence of alcohol or any drug in the body fluids of persons in its employ, and, accordingly, they do not ‘replace Rule
G or render it unenforceable.’ ”
“To the extent pertinent here, two subparts of the regulations relate to testing. Subpart C, which is entitled ‘Post-Accident Toxicological Testing,’ is mandatory. It provides that railroads ‘shall take all practicable steps to assure that all covered employees of the railroad directly involved . . . provide blood and urine samples for toxicological testing by FRA,’ upon the occurrence of certain specified events. Toxicological testing is required following a ‘major train accident,’ which is defined as any train accident that involves (i) a fatality, (ii) the release of hazardous material accompanied by an evacuation or a reportable injury, or (iii) damage to railroad property of $500,000 or more. The railroad has the further duty of collecting blood and urine samples for testing after an ‘impact accident,’ which is defined as a collision that results in a reportable injury, or in damage to railroad property of $50,000 or more. Finally, the railroad is also obligated to test after ‘[a
]ny train incident that involves a fatality to any on-duty railroad employee.’ ”
“After occurrence of an event which activates its duty to test, the railroad must transport all crew members and other covered employees directly involved in the accident or incident to an independent medical facility, where both blood and urine samples must be obtained from each employee. After the samples have been collected, the railroad is required to ship them by prepaid air freight to the FRA laboratory for analysis. There, the samples are analyzed using ‘state-of-the-art equipment and techniques’ to detect and measure alcohol and drugs. The FRA proposes to place primary reliance on analysis of blood samples, as blood is ‘the only available body fluid . . . that can provide a clear indication not only of the presence of alcohol and drugs but also their current impairment effects.’ Urine samples are also necessary, however, because drug traces remain in the urine longer than in blood, and in some cases it will not be possible to transport employees to a medical facility befor
e the time it takes for certain drugs to be eliminated from the bloodstream. In those instances, a ‘positive urine test, taken with specific information on the pattern of elimination for the particular drug and other information on the behavior of the employee and the circumstances of the accident, may be crucial to the determination of” the cause of an accident.’ ”
“The regulations require that the FRA notify employees of the results of the tests and afford them an opportunity to respond in writing before preparation of any final investigative report. Employees who refuse to provide required blood or urine samples may not perform covered service for nine months, but they are entitled to a hearing concerning their refusal to take the test.”
Moreover, “Subpart D of the regulations, which is entitled ‘Authorization to Test for Cause,’ is permissive. It authorizes railroads to require covered employees to submit to breath or urine tests in certain circumstances not addressed by Subpart C. Breath or urine tests, or both, may be ordered (1) after a reportable accident or incident, where a supervisor has a ‘reasonable suspicion’ that an employee’s acts or omissions contributed to the occurrence or severity of the accident or incident, in the event of certain specific rule violations, including noncompliance with a signal and excessive speeding. A railroad also may require breath tests where a supervisor has a ‘reasonable suspicion’ that an employee is under the influence of alcohol, based upon specific, personal observations concerning the appearance, behavior, speech, or body odors of the employee. Where impairment is suspected, a railroad, in addition, may require urine tests, but only if two supervisors make the appropriat
e determination, and, where the supervisors suspect impairment due to a substance other than alcohol, at least one of those supervisors must have received specialized training in detecting the signs of drug intoxication.”
“Subpart D further provides that whenever the results of either breath or urine tests are intended for use in a disciplinary proceeding, the employee must be given the opportunity to provide a blood sample for analysis at an independent medical facility. If an employee declines to give a blood sample, the railroad may presume impairment, absent persuasive evidence to the contrary, from a positive showing of controlled substance residues in the urine. The railroad must, however, provide detailed notice of this presumption to its employees, and advise them of their right to provide a contemporaneous blood sample. As in the case of samples procured under Subpart C, the regulations set forth procedures for the collection of samples, and require that samples ‘be analyzed by a method that is reliable within known tolerances.’ ”
The Respondents, Railway Labor Executives’ Association and many of its member labor groups (the “Respondents”) brought suit seeking to enjoin the FRA’s regulations on various statutory and constitutional grounds. The District Court granted the Petitioners, Skinner and others (the “Petitioners”) summary judgment. The Ninth Circuit reversed and certiori was granted.


Whether regulations promulgated by the FRA that ‘mandate blood and urine tests of employees who are involved in certain train accidents’ and ‘do not require, but do authorize, railroads to administer breath and urine tests to employees who violate certain safety rules violate the Fourth Amendment[?]’ ”


“[T]he permissibility of a particular practice ‘is judged by balancing its intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against its promotion of legitimate governmental interests.’ ” “In most criminal cases, [the Supreme Court] strike[s] this balance in favor of the procedures described by the Warrant Clause of the Fourth Amendment. Except in certain well-defined circumstances, a search or seizure in such a case is not reasonable unless it is accomplished pursuant to a judicial warrant issued upon probable cause. [The court has] recognized exceptions to this rule, however, ‘when special needs, beyond the normal need for law enforcement, make the warrant and probable-cause requirement impracticable.’ ” “When faced with such special needs, we have not hesitated to balance the governmental and privacy interests to assess the practicality of the warrant and probable-cause requirements in the particular context.’ ”
“The Government’s interest in regulating the conduct of railroad employees to ensure safety, like its supervision of probationers or regulated industries, or its operation of a government office, school, or prison, ‘likewise presents special needs beyond normal law enforcement that may justify departures from the usual warrant and probable-cause requirements.’ The hours of service employees covered by the FRA regulations include persons engaged in handling orders concerning train movements, operating crews, and those engaged in the maintenance and repair of signal systems. It is undisputed that these and other covered employees are engaged in safety-sensitive tasks. The FRA so found, and respondents conceded the point at oral argument. As we have recognized, the whole premise of the Hours of Service Act is that ‘[t]he length of hours of service has direct relation to the efficiency of the human agencies upon which protection [of] life and property necessarily depends.’ ”
“The FRA has prescribed toxicological tests, not to assist in the prosecution of employees, but rather ‘to prevent accidents and casualties in railroad operations that result from impairment of employees by alcohol or drugs.’ This governmental interest in ensuring the safety of the traveling public and of the employees themselves plainly justifies prohibiting covered employees from using alcohol or drugs on duty, or while subject to being called for duty. This interest also ‘require[s] and justif[ies] the exercise of supervision to assure that the restrictions are in fact observed.’ ” “Both the circumstances justifying toxicological testing and the permissible limits of such intrusions are defined narrowly and specifically in the regulations that authorize them, and doubtless are well known to covered employees. Indeed, in light of the standardized nature of the tests and the minimal discretion vested in those charged with administering the program, there are virtually no facts fo
r a neutral magistrate to evaluate.”
Further, “[the Court has] recognized, moreover, that the government’s interest in dispensing with the warrant requirement is at its strongest when, as here, ‘the burden of obtaining a warrant is likely to frustrate the governmental purpose behind the search.’ As the FRA recognized, alcohol and other drugs are eliminated from the bloodstream at a constant rate, and blood and breath samples taken to measure whether these substances were in the bloodstream when a triggering event occurred must be obtained as soon as possible. Although the metabolites of some drugs remain in the urine for longer periods of time and may enable the FRA to estimate whether the employee was impaired by those drugs at the time of a covered accident, incident, or rule violation, the delay necessary to procure a warrant nevertheless may result in the destruction of valuable evidence.” Moreover, “[t]he Government’s need to rely on private railroads to set the testing process in motion also indicates that insis
tence on a warrant requirement would impede the achievement of the Government’s objective. Railroad supervisors, like school officials, and hospital administrators, are not in the business of investigating violations of the criminal laws or enforcing administrative codes, and otherwise have little occasion to become familiar with the intricacies of this Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. ‘Imposing unwieldy warrant procedures . . . upon supervisors, who would otherwise have no reason to be familiar with such procedures, is simply unreasonable.’ ”
“In sum, imposing a warrant requirement in the present context would add little to the assurances of certainty and regularity already afforded by the regulations, while significantly hindering, and in many cases frustrating, the objectives of the Government’s testing program.”
“[T]he testing procedures contemplated by Subparts C and D pose only limited threats to the justifiable expectations of privacy of covered employees. By contrast, the Government interest in testing without a showing of individualized suspicion is compelling.”
“Negative test results would likewise furnish invaluable clues, for eliminating drug impairment as a potential cause or contributing factor would help establish the significance of equipment failure, inadequate training, or other potential causes, and suggest a more thorough examination of these alternatives. Tests performed following the rule violations specified in Subpart D likewise can provide valuable information respecting the causes of those transgressions, which the FRA found to involve ‘the potential for a serious train accident or grave personal injury, or both.’ ” “A requirement of particularized suspicion of drug or alcohol use would seriously impede an employer’s ability to obtain this information, despite its obvious importance.”
Moreover the majority concluded “that the compelling Government interests served by the FRA’s regulations would be significantly hindered if railroads were required to point to specific facts giving rise to a reasonable suspicion of impairment before testing a given employee. In view of our conclusion that, on the present record, the toxicological testing contemplated by the regulations is not an undue infringement on the justifiable expectations of privacy of covered employees, the Government’s compelling interests outweigh privacy concerns.” To that end, “[t]he Government may take all necessary and reasonable regulatory steps to prevent or deter that hazardous conduct, and since the gravamen of the evil is performing certain functions while concealing the substance in the body, it may be necessary, as in the case before us, to examine the body or its fluids to accomplish the regulatory purpose.”
“Alcohol and drug tests conducted in reliance on the authority of Subpart D cannot be viewed as private action outside the reach of the Fourth Amendment. Because the testing procedures mandated or authorized by Subparts C and D effect searches of the person, they must meet the Fourth Amendment’s reasonableness requirement. In light of the limited discretion exercised by the railroad employers under the regulations, the surpassing safety interests served by toxicological tests in this context, and the diminished expectation of privacy that attaches to information pertaining to the fitness of covered employees, we believe that it is reasonable to conduct such tests in the absence of a warrant or reasonable suspicion that any particular employee may be impaired.”


This case offers an interesting application of the Fourth Amendment to the railroads and how its requirements can be relaxed.

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