New Jersey Courts: Zero Tolerance, Zero Compassion

February 24th, 2012 by

You have to feel sorry for Erik Martin. He went to work for Quick Chek Corp in 1999 as an assistant store manager. He was promoted to store manager in the summer of 2000. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease that same year. After informing his supervisor of his diagnosis, she advised him to keep his illness “hush, hush.” Martin complied, and never mentioned his illness to the company’s HR director. Martin missed work in 2004 and 2006 due to two mini-strokes and took a two-week leave of absence in 2007 because of depression. Despite his formidable physical difficulties – unrelated to work – he returned to work as soon as he was able.
In March 2008, Martin requested and received a demotion because his medical condition, combined with the lack of an assistant manager, precluded him from satisfying his work obligations. Later that same month, Martin injured his back at work. He contacted his doctor, who instructed him to take a darvocet that was previously prescribed to Martin’s mother-in-law. Martin visited the doctor the following day, at which time he was prescribed percocet to manage his pain.
Drug Policy
In keeping with company policy, Martin was drug tested two days after the injury. A few days later, he was contacted by the testing facility. They asked him to disclose the medications he was taking. He told them about his prescriptions, including the percocet, and also informed them about the darvocet he took on the day of the injury. Because he tested positive for darvocet without a prescription, the testing company reported a failed drug test and Quick Chek terminated Martin.
A reasonable person might think that Martin was in compliance with the company policy. He took a pill at the verbal direction of his doctor. Was this a “prescribed” medication? Well, that’s where a problem arises.

The word “prescription” comes from the Latin “praescriptus” compounded from “prae”, before + scribere, to write = to write before. Historically, a prescription was written before the drug was prepared and administered.

It appears that a “verbal prescription” is an oxymoron: if it isn’t in writing, it isn’t a prescription. [NOTE: the court ruling did not even address this issue.]
The HR director testified that his decision to terminate Martin was based on the failed drug test. He further testified that in his thirteen years managing human resources for Quick Chek, he never made an exception to the company’s zero-tolerance drug abuse policy. The director also stated that he was not aware of Martin’s Parkinson’s disease until this litigation commenced.Thus Martin’s termination was consistent with company policy. And in the view of the court, the termination was perfectly legal.
The court wrote:

Unquestionably, the company’s drug policy was enforced in a harsh fashion against Martin. The company relied completely on the assessment of the testing company that Martin “failed” the drug test. Quick Chek operates in such a way as to delegate total discretion to interpret the drug test results to the testing company. Once deemed to have failed the drug test, an employee is terminated without exception with no apparent right of appeal. In Vargo v. National Exchange Carriers Assn., Inc., 376 N.J.Super. 364, 383 (App. Div. 2005), we held that a company need not investigate possible legal reasons for a positive drug test before taking action with regard to a prospective employee; nor should such a duty exist with respect to existing employees. NJLAD is not offended by a private company’s lack of compassion in these circumstances.

Note how the court starts with a precedent involving a job applicant and then applies it to a loyal employee of long standing: “nor should such a duty exist with respect to existing employees.” The court may not see any difference between an applicant and a loyal employee, but I do.
No Room for Compassion
The court “is not offended by a private company’s lack of compassion.” Well, I am. Zero tolerance policies back companies into a corner; their rigidity may eliminate the need for discretion, but in doing so, these policies also eliminate many good employees. A little discretion in the hands of good managers is a powerful tool toward building a positive work culture. By contrast, zero tolerance policies may provide an illusion of control over matters that are difficult to control, but they are not an effective way to run a company (or a school, for that matter). Indeed, the policy makes it difficult for the company to fulfill its promise as a great place to work:

Quick Chek is proud to be one of NJ’s Best Places to Work! With 2,600 team members in over 120 stores, we strive to create a positive experience and fun environment where core values are nurtured, hard work is rewarded and leadership is cultivated.

I wonder what Erik Martin thinks of the company’s “core values.” When his illness prevented him from doing his job, he requested and was granted a demotion. When his illness prevented him from working, he took (unpaid) time off and focused on recovery. When he was injured at work, he followed his doctor’s orders and his company’s procedures. Martin’s loyalty and perseverance are admirable qualities, but they did not buy him much in the corporate offices of Quick Chek or the courtrooms of New Jersey.

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