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No Rational Relationship between Hospital Radiological Technician Duties and Drug Possession Conviction, according to Hawaii Supreme Court

Posted Thursday, January 22, 2015 2:00 pm

A hospital failed to show a rational relationship between the duties performed by a radiological technician ("radtech") and a prior drug conviction, according to a decision issued by the Hawaii Supreme Court this month.  The case involved a job applicant who had been convicted and served a 37-month sentence for possession with intent to distribute crystal methamphetamine.  Upon his release from prison, the applicant completed a radtech degree program at Kapiolani Community College and applied for a vacant radtech position at the Hilo Medical Center.  After learning that he was disqualified from consideration because of his conviction, he filed a charge of discrimination with the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission.  When the agency issued a notice of dismissal and right to sue letter, the employee filed suit in circuit court alleging that the employer's decision violated Hawaii's arrest and court record discrimination law.  This law provides in relevant part that an employer may only consider a conviction record in making an adverse employment decision if a rational relationship exists between the position's duties and the conviction.

At the circuit court, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment.  The employer argued that a rational relationship existed between the applicant's conviction and the radtech position because radtechs have access to and handle controlled substances, non-controlled pharmaceuticals, syringes and needles.  The position also requires radtechs to interact with vulnerable patients who have prescriptions for these medications.  In response, the applicant argued that while controlled and non-controlled medications are present in the hospital, they are safeguarded and radtechs do not in practice have any access to them.  He also argued that radtech access to vulnerable patient groups exists at the same level as that of visitors and that radtechs have no responsibility for or access to patient medication.  The circuit court nonetheless granted the employer's motion for summary judgment, a decision that was subsequently affirmed by the Intermediate Court of Appeals.

The applicant further appealed to the Hawaii Supreme Court, which reversed the lower courts' holding and concluded instead that the employer failed to establish the existence of a rational relationship between the applicant's conviction and the duties of a radtech.  In so doing, the court reasoned that the radtech position was primarily focused on medical imaging and maintenance of medical imaging equipment, as opposed to administering or assisting patients with any type of drugs.  The employer also failed to present undisputed facts to establish a rational relationship between a drug conviction and a radtech's proximity to non-controlled substances and patient charts at the hospital.  While the Court recognized that a rational relationship may exist between a drug conviction and access to controlled substances in light of drug diversion challenges that hospitals often face, it noted that there remain genuine issues of material fact regarding whether radtechs have a level of access to hospital facilities containing controlled substances that is rationally related to a prior felony drug conviction.  Finally, the Court noted that while it is possible that a rational relationship between the radtech position and the drug conviction could exist if the radtech's contact with patients involved a legally significant degree of access to controlled substances prescribed to patients, there remain genuine issues of material fact regarding how a radtech could obtain controlled substances from a patient in the course of performing work.   The court further noted that drug convictions often have nothing to do with abuse of vulnerable populations including elders and children, and should not serve as grounds for a blanket disqualification from employment where a position requires interaction with children or the elderly.

As a result of this analysis, the court reversed the lower court's grant of summary judgment regarding the applicant's arrest and court record claim under Hawaii law, and remanded the case for further proceedings.  Shimose v. Hawaii Health Systems Corporation

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