A firefighter terminated after failing a random drug test has been ordered reinstated, according to public documents.
Administrative law judge Leslie Celentano reversed the Paterson Fire Department termination of Eric Beagin in October.
Beagin was suspended from his job on Aug. 13, 2015 for being “unfit for duty” and conduct unbecoming a public employee . He submitted to a random drug test on Jul. 17, 2015. Urine test result indicated he had higher than acceptable level of Oxycodone in his system. He was terminated on Sept. 18, 2015.
Beagin appealed the termination, contesting the reliability and trustworthiness of the drug test at the New Jersey State Toxicology Laboratory. His side also raised doubts about the interpretation of the results by the lab.
Celentano heard testimony from two expert witnesses earlier in the year.
Robert Havier, a forensic toxicologist, who has been at the New Jersey State Toxicology Laboratory for 40 years and has served as acting director for 8 years, explained the drug-testing process.
Beagin’s urine initially tested 108 ng/ml, a reading above 100 ng/ml is considered positive for having a drug in the system. A confirmation test was conducted which had a 114 ng/ml reading, according to the judge’s decision.
Havier testified that if the reading had been 99 ng/ml it would have been a negative test result.
Beagin’s side raised question about the control samples in the testing. Control samples are purchased by the lab and have a known concentration of a drug to test machine and ensure it is properly calibrated.
When machine is tested with the control samples it should accurately show the controlled amount. A machine is tested with control samples before a sample is tested; if the results are as expected, then the machine is working properly, according to Havier’s testimony cited in the decision.
3 of 5 calibrations must return accurate results for the test to be correct.
Readings for calibrations has to be within 20-percent of the cutoff for the equipment to be accurate.
A control sample that was expected to report 125 ng/ml showed a 130 ng/ml result. Another control that had to show 100 ng/ml returned a 116.4 ng/ml result.
“Other readings were similarly higher than anticipated,” according to testimony cited in the decision.
Havier testified Beagin’s test called the gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS) results were still deemed accurate. He explained there’s an industry standard of 20-percent “acceptable variation” that applied to control samples, but not to Beagin’s sample.
Beagin’s side presented its own expert witness.
Lyle Hayes, forensic toxicologist, who has been directing two drug-testing labs in New York for 15 years, testified there was a “bias for inaccuracy” in the lab test.
Hayes, who reviewed documents of the tests, testified the machine was supposed to show a reading of 100 ng/ml for the control samples. If 115 or 116 were a level of 100 based on the control samples, then Beagin’s sample is 98 or 99, less than the 100 ng/ml or above to test positive.
Hayes stated he had no confidence in the results due to technical issues.
“If the 20 percent error margin were applied to” Beagin’s “specimen, that would bring his results below the cutoff of 100,” wrote the judge in the decision.
The judge noted “significant confusion” between documents submitted into evidence and Havier’s testimony.
Hayes also raised concerns about cross-contamination. He observed a technologist passing sample over the open tubes of other specimens and a drip occurring, according to the decision.
Celentano concluded Beagin’s termination is “unsupported and cannot stand.” Her decision was sent to the New Jersey Civil Service Commission which can either accept, modify, or reject the decision.
Municipal officials had the option to file what’s called an exception to urge the commission to reject the judge’s decision and uphold the termination. It’s not clear whether the city filed an exception. Law director Farrah Irving did not respond to a call for comment for this story.
In late November, the New Jersey Civil Service Commission put the matter on hold for further review.
Beagin was hired as a firefighter in Mar. 2009, according to municipal records.