Case Brief Admin Law Skinner

Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives’ Association, 489 U.S. 602 (1989)
In the context of public policy directed toward the waging of the “war on drugs” in the 1980’s
(deemed a national crisis), governmental safety initiatives aimed at curbing alcohol and illegal
drug use in the workplace of specific industries were proposed. Under The Federal Railroad
Safety, both the Secretary of Transportation and the Federal Railway Association, (by
delegation) are given the authority to "prescribe, as necessary, appropriate rules, regulations,
orders, and standards for all areas of railroad safety.” 45 U.S.C. § 431(a) (1988). Derived from
this authority and fueled by the findings of a Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) study,
indicating wide spread drug and alcohol abuse by railroad employees in the workplace, the FRA
proposed further regulation to address the serious concerns affecting the safety of both railway
employees and the public. The study findings disclosed the following:
[a]n estimated one out of every eight railroad workers drank at least once while on
duty during the study year, 23% of operating personnel were 'problem drinkers',
only 4% of problem drinkers were receiving help through an employee assistance
program, and fewer were handled through disciplinary procedures, 5% of workers
reported to work 'very drunk' or got 'very drunk' on duty at least once in the study year,
and 13% of workers reported to work at least 'a little drunk' one or more times
during the study year.
48 Fed. Reg. 30,724 (1983).
Based on this research, it was determined that “21 significant train accidents on our nation's
railroads involved alcohol or drug use as a probable cause or contributing factor.” Id. at 30,726.
In light of 25 fatalities, 61 injuries, and 19 dollars in property damage, the FRA concluded that
efforts to control railroad employee alcohol and substance abuse had been largely unsuccessful,
thereby threatening public safety. Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives' Ass'n, 109 S. Ct. 1408
(1989). Subsequently, the FRA promulgated rules addressing the issue of alcohol and drug
abuse in the railway industry. Id. These regulations applied to “covered employees”, personnel
subject to the Hours of Service Act of 1907, codified in 45 U.S.C. § 61(b)(2) (1982). Pursuant
to 49 C.F.R. §§ 219.201-.309 (1988), the Petitioners alleged that certain sections of the
regulations were violative of employees’ Fourth Amendment protections. Specifically, subpart
C, mandating post-accident blood and urine testing of railroad personnel directly involved in
particular train accidents (major train accidents and impact accidents) as defined in 49 C.F.R. §
219.201(a)(1) and 49 C.F.R. § 219.201(a)(2) (1988), respectively), and subpart D, authorizing,
but not requiring railroads to administer breath or urine tests, or both, to employees in violation
or safety rules were challenged.
The RLEA, filed suit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California
seeking to enjoin the FRA’s enforcement of the above-mentioned regulations. Skinner v.
Railway Labor Executives' Ass'n, 109 S. Ct. 1402 (1989). Summary judgment was granted to
the Secretary of Transportation of the United States and on appeal the Ninth Circuit Court of
Appeals reversed the district court’s decision and held that under the Fourth Amendment, a
search is unreasonable absent a finding of “particularized suspicion.” Railway Labor Executives'
Ass'n v. Burnley, 839 F.2d 575 (9th Cir. 1988). In considering whether or not the regulations
violated Fourth Amendment protections, The Supreme Court granted certiorari.
ISSUE: Are FRA promulgated regulations mandating the testing of blood and urine samples of
railway employees involved in particular train accidents and the administering of breath and
urine tests of employees who are in violation of certain safety rules violative of the Fourth
Amendment’s protections?
HOLDING: No. The Court held in a 7-2 majority decision that FRA regulations which either
mandate or authorize the drug and alcohol testing of railway employees, in the absence of the
requirements of a warrant, probable cause or a finding of reasonable suspicion that an employee
is impaired by the influence of alcohol or drugs is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
In reversing the Appellate Court’s decision which ruled that the FRA’s regulations were an
unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment, the Court reasoned that given the
government’s compelling interest in ensuring safety, this interest outweighed the privacy
concerns of railway employees. The Court noted that as the regulations afford those who
administer the tests (railroad supervisors) limited discretion, the privacy expectations of
employees is greatly diminished. Therefore, the government’s safety interests surpass any
employees’ expectation of privacy. In arriving at this conclusion, the permissibility of the tests
was determined by balancing the drug and alcohol tests’ intrusion on the employees’ Fourth
Amendment protections against the furtherance of the government’s legitimate objective
(regulating the conduct of railway employees thereby ensuring safety). The Court noted that
although in the criminal context, this balancing would favor procedures requiring a warrant
based on probable cause, in cases where “special needs” arise and go beyond “the normal need
for law enforcement”, the Court has recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement, such as
crime control or safety. Skinner, 109 S. Ct. at 1423 As the burden of obtaining a warrant would
frustrate the government’s purpose of the search itself (the obtaining and preserving of evidence
indicating drug or alcohol use), the elimination of the warrant requirement is justified. Skinner,
109 S. Ct. at 1426. In reviewing the RLEA’s allegations that specific sub parts of the FRA’s
regulations (subparts C and D) were violative of the Fourth Amendment’s protections against
unreasonable governmental searches and seizures lacking individualized suspicion, the Court
ruled that the testing procedures were reasonable in that they were narrowly defined, limited
intrusions, comparable to those utilized in a routine physical examination. Id. Therefore, the
procedures did not constitute an undue infringement upon the expectations of privacy due to
covered employees in the highly regulated railway industry (railway employees have a
diminished expectation of privacy given the nature of their work, which is highly regulated by
the government. Ruston v. Nebraska Public Power Dist., 653 F. Supp. 1510 (D. Nev.1987).
As the government’s regulatory purpose in administering drug and alcohol tests is to reveal
valuable information to aid in the prevention of railway accidents and serious safety violations,
requiring particularized suspicion of drug or alcohol use or the requirement of a warrant would
seriously hinder the process of gathering the very information sought. Camara v. Municipal
Court, 387 U.S. 523 (1967). The Court concluded that the compelling governmental interests
facilitated by the drug and alcohol tests, (absent a warrant or reasonable suspicion) met the
Fourth Amendment’s reasonableness requirement and in this particular context outweighed the
privacy interests of the railway employees. Furthermore, the reasonableness of a search is not
dependent upon either a warrant or probable cause if a “special need” exists. Skinner v. Railway
Labor Executives' Ass'n, 489 U.S. 602 (1989).
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