Bixler v. Concentra Health Services, UIA – 12.142

Bixler v. Concentra Health Services, UIA
Digest No. 12.142

Sections 421.29(1)(m) and 421.29(1)(b)

Cite as: Bixler v Concentra Health Services, Inc, unpublished opinion of the Wayne Circuit Court, issued January 24, 2012 (Docket No. 11-009212-AE).

Appeal pending: No
Claimant: Barbara Bixler
Employer: Concentra Health Services, Inc.
Docket no.: 11-009212-AE
Date of decision: January 24, 2012

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HOLDING: The burden of proof on the employer to prove the the Claimant ineligible under 29(1) prevents the ALJ from “questioning the [Claimant] into proving the case against her, effectively forcing her to carry the burden of proof against herself.” Although the ALJ has “a duty to decide benefits regardless of the action or inaction of the employer”, and may independently question witnesses, such questioning must not be “used as a tool to circumvent the requirement that the employer carry the burden of proof”.

FACTS: Claimant smoked a small amount of marijuana for the first time in 35 years. One and a half days later, she was pulled for a random drug screening at her job as a receptionist for Concentra. She failed the drug test and was subsequently terminated. Concentra fired her over the phone and she stated at trial that the reason given was the positive drug test. She then received 25 of 26 available unemployment insurance payments before the UIA sued to declare her ineligible and for restitution totaling $7,025. Concentra failed to appear at the hearing. At the ALJ level, the employer’s side offered no evidence of the positive drug test. During questioning, however, after objections, Claimant answered that she remembered seeing the positive test, and that she assumed, logically, that it was caused by her drug use two days prior. Relying on this evidence, the ALJ found her ineligible, but ruled that UIA was not entitled to restitution because it had been notified of her potential ineligibility five months before it ceased to pay her benefits. On appeal, the Board of Review upheld Claimant’s ineligibility but reversed on the restitution because the agency’s continuance of payments was due to their high volume at that time and not due to an administrative error. Claimant appealed to the Circuit Court of Wayne County.

DECISION: The Board of Review decision is reversed and Claimant is entitled to unemployment insurance benefits.

RATIONALE: The burden of proof on the employer to demonstrate a 29(1) defense cannot be circumvented by the special rule allowing ALJs to question witnesses and to make eligibility determinations in the absence of employer intervention. Thus the burden of proof rule trumps the special ALJ questioning rule. The alternative outcome would have been that the rule allowing ALJs to independently question Claimants overrides the burden of proof rule. Under this hierarchy of rules, however, “the employer would never have to appear in a drug test case”. The temptation to make the witness admit to her drug use may be motivated by a legitimate concern for the public interest, since the people have decided, via the legislature that those fired for drug use are ineligible for benefits. However, the same public also decided that the burden of demonstrating 29(1) defenses falls on the employer.

The court also noted that the burden shifting is especially “troublesome when it comes to ascertaining whether the test was administered in discriminatory manner”. Since the employer made no appearance, and thus gave no account as to how the test was administered, the Claimant had no means to challenge the test as discriminatory. Note that the test being non-discriminatory is a condition of the employer’s 29(1)(m) defense, not a counter attack available to claimants. Thus a drug tests non-discriminatory status is subject to the employer’s burden of proof. The ALJ may have assumed that, because we know that the Claimant in this case had, in fact, used drugs, the test couldn’t have been discriminatory, because it was accurate. Since part of the administration of drug tests is the selection of employees to take the test, accuracy of the result is not sufficient to show that the test was not administered discriminatorily. Again, without the employer offering some account of the test’s administration, the Claimant had no real opportunity to challenge it on those grounds. As the court stated “She could not cross examine an empty chair.”

Digest Author: James Fahringer, Michigan Law, Class of 2018
Digest Updated: 3/1/2016