Hawaii, like some other states, only permits employers to consider convictions that bear a “rational relationship to the duties and responsibilities of the position.” Recently, the Hawaii Supreme Court had occasion to decide an issue that few other courts have addressed—the relationship of an applicant’s drug conviction to the job sought.

In Shimose v. Hawaii Health Systems Corporation, No. SWC-12-0000422 (Jan. 16, 2015)—the plaintiff, Zak Shimose, claimed that the defendant, Hawaii Health Systems Corporation, violated state law when it denied him employment as a radiological technician based on his prior conviction for possession with intent to distribute crystal methamphetamine. In denying the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, the Hawaii Supreme Court held that the employer had failed to establish a “rational relationship” between the position sought and the plaintiff’s past drug offense.

The defendant had argued, to no avail, that a rational relationship existed insofar as radiological technicians: (1) “have access to drugs, syringes, needles, and patient charts” and (2) “work with vulnerable patient groups who are at risk of having ‘their medication taken from them and/or being sold an illegal drug.’”

The court found these arguments unavailing and countered that “syringes and needles are readily and cheaply available to the public,” and “none of the drugs in the crash carts and drug reactions boxes . . . are regulated by the federal Controlled Substances Act.” And, though the court recognized that “the relationship between a drug conviction and access to controlled substances may prove to be rational in this case,” it also found a “material fact” dispute as to whether “access to a patient’s chart would lead to access to controlled substances” or whether “controlled substances might be present in anesthesia carts and storage areas.”

The court also noted that “drug convictions often have nothing to do with elder/child abuse, and should not serve as a blanket disqualification from employment that requires a modicum of interaction with children and the elderly.” The court otherwise found that the plaintiff’s drug conviction did not have a rational relationship to the “core” medical imaging duties of a radiological technician.

This case should serve as a reminder to employers in Hawaii that whether a conviction is “job-related” is a fact-intensive inquiry that can turn on the circumstances of any given case. And, though courts in other jurisdictions may have reached a different outcome, the Hawaii Supreme Court’s decision is instructive of the type of “individualized assessment” the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other state laws have urged employers to make when considering whether to take an adverse action on the basis of an applicant’s or employee’s criminal history.