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Appellate Court Affirms City’s Termination Of Police Officer For Failing To Take Drug Test And Dismisses Workers’ Compensation Retaliation Claim

John Lance, a police officer for the City of Camden, New Jersey, was injured on May 10, 2004 in a work-related motor vehicle accident. He received medical and temporary disability benefits in workers’ compensation. However, he alleged that his workers’ compensation benefits were improperly terminated in October 2005.

On June 12, 2004, about a month later, Lance was directed to appear at police headquarters for a drug test. He appeared and was given documents pertaining to the drug test. He stated that he was unable to understand the documents and requested assistance. When told he had to sign the documents, he refused and the test session was terminated. The City then served disciplinary charges against Lance seeking his termination for failure to undergo the City’s drug test.

The City conducted hearings on the disciplinary charges in November 2005 and January 2006. Lance claimed that he was not able to defend himself at the hearing because of cognitive impairments which were exacerbated by his inability to obtain medical treatment after the termination of his workers’ compensation benefits.

On January 23, 2006, the hearing officer issued a report recommending termination of Lance’s employment. The City proceeded to discharge Lance. Around the same time, hearings continued in the Division of Workers’ Compensation, and Lance prevailed in his claim for continued temporary and medical benefits. Ultimately, the City paid $189,892 in temporary disability benefits and $65,220 in medical benefits. Plaintiff also received an accidental disability pension, which would pay him two thirds of his salary free of federal taxes, and free of state taxes until age 65.

Following his termination, Lance sued and claimed that the City violated his right against unreasonable searches and seizures by making him submit to a drug test. He further claimed that the City retaliated against him for successfully obtaining workers’ compensation benefits and retaliated against him by delaying payment of his temporary disability benefits. The trial court dismissed all of plaintiff’s claims and Lance appealed.

The Appellate Court rejected plaintiff’s employment discrimination claim:

While plaintiff alleged that he did not understand ‘what was going on’ when he appeared for the test, he provided no affidavit or certification supporting that allegation. A police officer who unjustifiably refuses to comply with an order requiring that he undergo a drug test cannot be said to be performing his job in a manner that met the employer’s reasonable expectations. Plaintiff provided no evidence showing that his refusal to submit to the test was medically justified.

As for the claim for retaliation due to the filing of a workers’ compensation claim, the Court acknowledged that there is a cause of action in New Jersey for retaliatory discharge for seeking workers’ compensation benefits. In this case Lance contended that the City unlawfully retaliated against him for seeking workers’ compensation benefits by delaying payment of his temporary disability benefits. “The trial court correctly ruled that this claim should be pursued in the compensation case pending before the Division of Workers’ Compensation, in which plaintiff was seeking additional disability benefits.”

Regarding plaintiff’s charge that he was wrongfully terminated for successfully obtaining workers’ compensation benefits, the court said that Lance failed to offer any proof on this count. “Plaintiff presented no evidence from which a fact-finder could conclude that the City ordered the test or discharged plaintiff because he obtained workers’ compensation benefits.”

This case can be found at Lance v. City of Camden, A-3157-11T3 (App.Div.April 18, 2013).

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This blog article was researched and written by John H. Geaney, a member of the executive committee and equity partner at the law firm of Capehart Scatchard. The content of the this article is intended to provide general information on the topic presented, and is offered with the understanding that the author is not rendering any legal or professional services or advice. This article is not a substitute for legal advice. Should you require such services, retain competent legal counsel.

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