In an October 4, 2017 letter to all United States attorneys and heads of federal agencies, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) will no longer interpret Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) to provide employment protections to transgender individuals.  This statement reversed former Attorney General Eric Holder’s position, who previously concluded that Title VII does protect transgender individuals from employment discrimination.

Although this letter from the Attorney General is a departure from the DOJ’s prior position, this announcement is not surprising.  Earlier this year the DOJ filed a brief, without being asked by the court, in a case before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Zarda v. Altitude Express.  The DOJ argued that Title VII does not prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  In that same matter, the current Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (“EEOC”) argued that Title VII does prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  This case has not yet been decided, but Judge Rosemary Parker of the Second Circuit noted during oral arguments that “[i]t’s a little bit awkward for us to have the federal government on both sides of the case.”

The grounds for this change in interpretation by the DOJ could be based on several reasons – whether political or based on a strict textual interpretation of Title VII.  Regardless of the motive, however, this policy change is yet another signal that the DOJ will likely continue to actively argue in court, whether they are a party or not, that Title VII and other laws do not provide protection to LGBT individuals.  It is also likely that the DOJ will seek to withdraw itself from any active litigation in support of expanding such protection.

Regardless of the rationale for issuing this letter, the impact of the Attorney General’s new interpretation of Title VII likely will not have significant immediate impact on employer obligations and conduct for several reasons.  First, the DOJ’s newly stated position stands in direct opposition to the EEOC interpretation of Title VII, and the EEOC is the primary federal agency tasked with investigating violations of and pursuing enforcement of Title VII.  While the DOJ has the ability to prosecute violations of Title VII against state and local governments, it does not do so with nearly the frequency of the EEOC, and does not do so with respect to private employers.  Second, courts ultimately will determine the scope of Title VII, not the DOJ.  While the DOJ may seek to persuade the courts that Title VII does not provide protection for transgender individuals, as it did in its amicus brief filed in Zarda, the DOJ’s insertion into such lawsuits does not guarantee that its position will be accepted.  The Supreme Court held in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, almost thirty years ago, that employment discrimination based on sex stereotypes is unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII, and this decision has been relied on in dozens of subsequent lower court decisions in finding that protection from discrimination based on someone’s transgender status falls within the text of Title VII.  Finally, numerous states and localities, such as New York and the District of Columbia, already have passed legislation to expressly prohibit discrimination based on gender identity.

On Friday October 6, 2017, the Trump administration released two interim final rules expanding the exemptions allowed under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s (the “ACA’s”) contraceptive coverage mandate. Under the ACA, employer group health plans generally are required to cover contraceptives, sterilization, and related patient education and counseling, with exemptions provided for religious houses of worship. The exemption was expanded by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby 34 S. Ct. 2751 (2014), which held health plans of closely held for-profit corporations are not required to cover contraceptives if doing so would contradict the owner’s religious beliefs under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The interim final rules, released by the Treasury Department, Department of Labor (DOL), and HHS, are effective immediately and provide exemptions from the contraceptive coverage mandate to many employers with “sincerely held religious beliefs” or “sincerely held moral convictions.” The interim final rules limit the exemption for “sincerely held moral convictions” to houses of worship, tax-exempt entities, and closely held for-profit corporations, but permit publicly traded for-profit entities to use the exemption for “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

According to the Trump administration, the United States has had a long history of providing protections in the regulation of health care for individuals and entities with objections based on religious beliefs or moral convictions.

To take advantage of the new exemption, eligible employers must notify employees that they will no longer provide contraceptive coverage but need not inform the federal government. The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (ERISA), requires that a Summary of Material Modification (SMM) is provided within 60 days of a “material reduction” in covered services or benefits provided under a group health plan. A material reduction includes the elimination of benefits payable under a group health plan.

According to an Obama administration report released last year, 55 million women have gained access to no-cost birth control as a result of the contraceptive coverage mandate. It is not clear how many entities may claim the exemptions, but HHS has predicted about 200 entities (affecting 120,000 women) may do so based on the number of entities that filed lawsuits.

Written comments on the interim final rules are due December 5, 2017.

 

Our colleague Sharon L. Lippett, at Epstein Becker Green, has a post on the Financial Services Employment Law blog that will be of interest to many of our health care and life sciences employers and plan sponsors: “Plan Sponsors: Potential Targets for IRS Compliance Examinations.”

Following is an excerpt:

The IRS recently released the Tax Exempt and Government Entities FY 2018 Work Plan (the “2018 Work Plan”) which provides helpful information for sponsors of tax-qualified retirement plans about the focus of the IRS’ 2018 compliance efforts for employee benefit plan.  While the 2018 Work Plan is a high-level summary, it does address IRS compliance strategies for 2018 and should assist plan sponsors in administering their retirement plans.…

Read the full post here.

Click above or watch via YouTube, Vimeo, MP4, or WMV.

Employment Law This Week (Episode 88: Week of September 25, 2017) has released bonus footage of its interview with Michael McGahan, a Member of the Firm at Epstein Becker Green.

As Mike discusses, New York home care agencies typically pay sleep-in home health aides for 13 hours per day, relying on a 2010 opinion from the state Department of Labor. Two home health attendants who claimed they did not “live in” the homes of their clients filed suit against their employers, claiming that their patients’ need for 24-hour supervision required them to be working or on call for all 24 hours. They argued that they should have been paid the minimum wage for each hour. A state appellate court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding that the 13-hour rule violates the state’s minimum wage law. The Department of Health is currently reviewing the decision.

See also Mike’s recent post on this blog: http://www.ebglaw.com/eltw88-heal

In New York, State Department of Labor (“DOL”) regulations provide that the minimum wage must be paid for each hour an employee is “required to be available for work at a place prescribed by the employer.” (12 NYCRR § 142-2.1(b)) (“Wage Order”). Exception is made for a “residential employee,” defined as one who lives on the premises of the employer, during his or her sleeping hours or any time he or she is free to leave the place of employment. Id.

On March 1, 2010, the DOL issued an Opinion Letter advising that sleep-in employees, whether or not they are residential employees, who work a twenty-four hour shift must be paid not less than for thirteen hours for a twenty-four hour period provided they are afforded at least eight hours for sleep, actually received at least five hours of uninterrupted sleep and are afforded at least three hours for meals. (NYS St. Dept. of Labor OP. No-09-0169 at 4 (March 11, 2010)). The Opinion Letter was a reiteration of the DOL’s long standing interpretation of the Wage Order as applied to home health care attendants, and agencies assigning attendants to twenty-four hour shifts have long followed it in paying the attendants for this shift.

In recent decisions, New York appellate courts have declined to defer to the DOL’s Opinion Letter because, according to those Courts, the letter conflicts with the plain language of the Wage Order. The Appellate Division First Department was the first to so rule in Tokhtaman v. Human Care LLC, 149 A.D. 3d 476 (1st Dept. 2017). Then, last week, the Appellate Division Second Department in Andryeyeva, on behalf of herself and all others similarly situated v. New York Home Attendant Agency, __ A.D. ___ (2nd Dept. 2017) and Moreno v. Future Care Health Services, Inc., ___ A.D. ___ (2nd Dept. 2017), adopted the First Department’s ruling.

The plaintiffs in Andryeyeva and Moreno were home health care attendants employed by the defendants to care for the elderly and disabled clients. They were assigned to twenty-four hour shifts in the client residents’ homes but claimed that they did not “live in” the homes. In Andryeyeva, they were paid an hourly rate for 12 hours of the shift and a flat rate for the 12 night hours. In Moreno, they were paid a flat fee for the entire shift. Plaintiffs in both cases argued that under the Wage Order they were entitled to the minimum wage for all twenty-four hours of the shifts. Defendants argued that plaintiff attendants were paid in accordance with the DOL Opinion Letter.

In Andryeyeva the Second Department acknowledged that it was required to uphold the DOL’s interpretation of the Wage Order as set forth in the Opinion Letter if it was not irrational or unreasonable. However, the court ruled that the DOL’s interpretation was neither rational nor reasonable because it conflicted with the plain language of the Wage Order. The court found that the plaintiffs were required to be at the client residences for the shift and were required to perform services if called upon. In reaching this decision the Second Department relied on the First Department’s decision in Tokhtaman, supra. The court also found that the plaintiffs met the prerequisites to class certification, thus allowing a class of over 1,000 attendants to proceed. The court in Moreno arrived at the same conclusion, noting that the DOL Opinion Letter conflicted with the plain language of the Wage Order because it failed to distinguish between “residential” and non-residential employees.

The state, trial and appellate court decisions in Andryeyeva, Moreno and Tokhtaman stand in contrast to the decisions in the United States District Courts for the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York, Severin v. Project OHR and Bonn-Wittingham v. Project OHR, which gave deference to the DOL’s interpretation of the Wage Order as set forth in the Opinion Letter and held that home health aides need only be paid for 13 hours of a 24-hour shift based on the 2010 DOL opinion letter.

The decisions in Andryeyeva and Moreno may be appealed to New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. If upheld there, the decisions present a serious challenge to the home health care industry. By declining to embrace the DOL’s opinion letter, the courts are opening the door to significant wage claims by New York’s tens of thousands of home health care attendants. Combined with the six-year statute of limitations on such claims in New York, this may lead to substantial back pay liability for the employing agencies, which could lead to a restructuring of those agencies and the services they provide.

What To Do

Home healthcare providers must pay close attention to all developments on this issue.

The Andryeyeva and Moreno cases may well be appealed, however, that process will likely take some time and there is no guarantee of a favorable outcome.

Given the potential adverse financial impact of the ruling on the home care industry as a whole, industry groups are likely to seek regulatory and/or economic relief from the New York State Departments of Labor and Health, and revisions to reimbursement rates for the 24 hour shifts.

Connecticut employees using medical marijuana for certain debilitating medical conditions as allowed under Connecticut law for “qualified users” are protected under state law from being fired or refused employment based solely on their marijuana use. Employers who violate those protections risk being sued for discrimination, according to a recent federal district court decision.

Background

In Noffsinger v. SSC Niantic Operation Company (3:16-cv-01938; D. Conn. Aug. 8, 2017), the federal district court ruled that “qualified users” are protected from criminal prosecution and are not subject to penalty, sanction or being denied any right or privilege under federal laws, such as the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), because the federal laws do not preempt Connecticut’s Palliative Use of Marijuana Act (PUMA).

PUMA prohibits employers from refusing to hire, fire, penalize, or threaten applicants or employees solely on the basis of being “qualified users” of medical marijuana. PUMA exempts patients, their caregivers and prescribing doctors from state penalties against those who use or distribute marijuana, and it explicitly prohibits discrimination by employers, schools and landlords.

In Noffsinger, Plaintiff was employed as a recreational therapist at Touchpoints, a long term care and rehabilitation provider, and she was recruited for a position as a director of recreational therapy at Bride Brook, a nursing facility. After a phone interview, she was offered the position at Bride Brook and accepted the offer, and she was told to give notice to Touchpoints, which she did to begin working at Bride Brook within a week. Plaintiff scheduled a meeting to complete paperwork and routine pre-employment drug screening for Bride Brook, and at the meeting, she disclosed her being qualified to use marijuana for PTSD under PUMA. The job offer was later rescinded because she tested positive for cannabis; in the meantime, Plaintiff’s position at Touchpoints was filled, so she could not remain employed there.

Litigation

Plaintiff sued for violation of PUMA’s anti-discrimination provisions, common law wrongful rescission of a job offer in violation of public policy and negligent infliction of emotional distress. Defendant filed a Rule 12(b)(6) pre-answer motion to dismiss based on preemption under CSA, ADA, and FDCA. The federal court denied the motion and ruled that PUMA did not conflict with the CSA, ADA or FDCA, because those federal laws are not intended to preempt or supersede state employment discrimination laws. The court concluded that CSA does not make it illegal to employ a marijuana user, and it does not regulate employment practices; the ADA does not regulate non-workplace activity or illegal use of drugs outside the workplace or drug use that does not affect job performance; and the FDCA does not regulate employment and does not apply to PUMA’s prohibitions.

The court’s decision is notable in that it is the first federal decision to determine that the CSA does not preempt a state medical marijuana law’s anti-discrimination provision, and reaches a different result than the District of New Mexico, which concluded that requiring accommodation of medical marijuana use conflicts with the CSA because it would mandate the very conduct the CSA proscribes. The Noffsinger decision supplements a growing number of state court decisions that have upheld employment protections for medical marijuana users contained in other state statutes. These decisions stand in stark contrast to prior state court decisions California, Colorado, Montana, Oregon, and Washington that held that decriminalization laws – i.e., statutes that do not contain express employment protections – do not confer a legal right to smoke marijuana and do not protect medical marijuana users from adverse employment actions based on positive drug tests.

Key Takeaways

Employers may continue to prohibit use of marijuana at the workplace; and qualified users who come to work under the influence, impaired and unable to perform essential job functions are subject to adverse employment decisions. Employers in Connecticut, however, may risk being sued for discrimination for enforcing a drug testing policy against lawful medical marijuana users.  In those cases, employers may have to accommodate off-duty marijuana use, and may take disciplinary action only if the employee is impaired by marijuana at work or while on duty.

It remains unclear how employers can determine whether an employee is under the influence of marijuana at work. Unlike with alcohol, current drug tests do not indicate whether and to what extent an employee is impaired by marijuana. Reliance on observations from employees may be problematic, as witnesses may have differing views as to the level of impairment, and, in any event, observation alone does not indicate the source of impairment. Employers following this “impairment standard” are advised to obtain as many data points as possible before making an adverse employment decision.

All employers – and particularly federal contractors required to comply with the Drug-Free Workplace Act and those who employ a zero-tolerance policy – should review their drug-testing policy to ensure that it: (a) sets clear expectations of employees; (b) provides justifications for the need for drug-testing; and (c) expressly allows for adverse action (including termination or refusal to hire) as a consequence of a positive drug test.

Additionally, employers enforcing zero-tolerance policies should be prepared for future challenges in those states prohibiting discrimination against and/or requiring accommodation of medical marijuana users. Eight other states besides Connecticut have passed similar medical marijuana laws that have express anti-discrimination protections for adverse employment actions: Arizona, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Nevada, New York, Minnesota and Rhode Island. Those states may require the adjustment or relaxation of a hiring policy to accommodate a medical marijuana user. Additionally, courts in Massachusetts and Rhode Island have permitted employment discrimination lawsuits filed by medical marijuana users to proceed.

Finally, employers should be mindful of their drug policies’ applicability not only to current employees, but also to applicants.

As we have previously reported, there has been an uptick of new employment decisions finding in favor of registered medical marijuana users.  In keeping with these decisions, an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) at New York City’s Office of Administrative Trials & Hearings (“OATH”) also issued a report and recommendation, subsequently adopted by the relevant City commissioner, to dismiss a petition against a taxi driver that would have stripped him of his driver license because of his lawful medical marijuana use.

In Taxi & Limousine Comm’n v. W.R., OATH Index. No. 2503/17 (July 14, 2017), adopted, Comm’r Dec. (July 25, 2017), the Taxi & Limousine Commission (“TLC”) filed a petition seeking the revocation of the respondent taxi driver’s TLC Driver License because the driver tested positive for marijuana.  OATH disagreed and recommended that the petition be dismissed, finding that revocation solely because of the driver’s status as a certified medical marijuana patient would violate New York City and State laws.  The TLC adopted the OATH decision.

The rationale was simply stated. Under the New York Compassionate Care Act, certified patients may not be subject to penalty or denied any right or privilege solely for the certified use of medical marijuana.  Because the patient certification is analogous to a prescription, the certified use of marijuana could not constitute an illegal drug use that would serve as the basis to revoke a license.  Further, certified patients are deemed to have a disability under the New York State Human Rights Law.  Because the New York State Human Rights Law prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, as does the New York City Human Rights Law, the driver had additional protections against revocation of his license.

Key Takeaways

This case serves as another illustration of the intersection of medical marijuana use and disability, and the potential pitfalls for those companies that maintain zero-tolerance drug policies.

New York City employers should be particularly cautious in the use of drug tests and the enforcement of their drug policies. While this decision involves a licensee rather than an employee, the reasoning employed by the ALJ could be equally applied to the employment context.  Additionally, OATH—as an independent administrative tribunal within the City—hears cases brought by any City agency, board, or commission, including the New York City Commission on Human Rights (“CCHR”).  In a case brought by the CCHR, OATH issues a report and recommendation to the City Human Rights Commissioner.  While the Commissioner has discretion to adopt, modify, or reject the report and recommendation, if such rationale were applied in an employment case, there is little doubt that this rationale would be followed by the Commissioner in employment discrimination cases.

When: Thursday, September 14, 2017 8:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

Where: New York Hilton Midtown, 1335 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019

Epstein Becker Green’s Annual Workforce Management Briefing will focus on the latest developments in labor and employment law, including:

  • Immigration
  • Global Executive Compensation
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Internal Cyber Threats
  • Pay Equity
  • People Analytics in Hiring
  • Gig Economy
  • Wage and Hour
  • Paid and Unpaid Leave
  • Trade Secret Misappropriation
  • Ethics

We will start the day with two morning Plenary Sessions. The first session is kicked off with Philip A. Miscimarra, Chairman of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

We are thrilled to welcome back speakers from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Marc Freedman and Katie Mahoney will speak on the latest policy developments in Washington, D.C., that impact employers nationwide during the second plenary session.

Morning and afternoon breakout workshop sessions are being led by attorneys at Epstein Becker Green – including some contributors to this blog! Commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Chai R. Feldblum, will be making remarks in the afternoon before attendees break into their afternoon workshops. We are also looking forward to hearing from our keynote speaker, Bret Baier, Chief Political Anchor of FOX News Channel and Anchor of Special Report with Bret Baier.

View the full briefing agenda and workshop descriptions here.

Visit the briefing website for more information and to register, and contact Sylwia Faszczewska or Elizabeth Gannon with questions. Seating is limited.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently clarified that the “motivating factor” standard of causation applies to Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) retaliation claims, instead of the “but for” causation standard applied in Title VII and ADEA retaliation cases. The “but for” standard is more onerous for the plaintiff, who must demonstrate that discrimination or retaliation was the determining factor for the adverse employment action, not just one reason among others. The less burdensome “motivating factor” causation standard requires the plaintiff to show only that the action was motivated at least in part by discriminatory or retaliatory animus.  In Woods v. START Treatment & Recovery Ctrs., Inc., the Second Circuit vacated and remanded the jury verdict where the district court incorrectly instructed the jury to apply the “but for” causation standard to Plaintiff’s FMLA retaliation claims.  Specifically, the court held that the “motivating factor” standard applies to FMLA retaliation claims actionable under 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(1), which prohibits “any employer to interfere with, retrain, or deny the exercise of or the attempt to exercise” rights under the FMLA.

Background

Plaintiff Woods worked as a substance abuse counselor for Defendant START from 2007 until her termination in 2012. Beginning in 2011, Woods received several warning memos and was placed on probation due to poor performance.  During this period, Woods suffered from severe anemia and other conditions for which she requested medical leave under the FMLA.  Woods was hospitalized as a result of her condition in April 2012 and, shortly after returning to work, was terminated from her position as a counselor.  START proffered that Woods’s termination was the result of her demonstrated poor performance for over a year, whereas Woods claimed that she was discharged due to her request for and use of FMLA leave.  During discovery, START pursued questions about Woods’s prior alleged wrongdoing, but Woods refused to answer and invoked the Fifth Amendment.  At trial, the district court instructed the jury that Woods had to show that she would not have been discharged “but for” her use of FMLA leave, and that the jury could presume, based on her invocation of the Fifth Amendment, that Woods would have answered questions about her alleged wrongdoing in the affirmative.  The jury returned a verdict in favor of START on all counts.

The Second Circuit reversed and remanded, finding the district court erred by improperly instructing the jury on the causation standard and by issuing the adverse inference ruling with regard to the Fifth Amendment claim. While other circuits find a basis for FMLA retaliation claims in 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(2), the court determined that FMLA retaliation claims are sourced from § 2615(a)(1).  This is a key distinction because the language in § 2615(a)(2) is similar to the Title VII retaliation language discussed in Univ. of Tex. Sw. Med. Ctr. v. Nassar, 133 S. Ct. 2517 (2013) and Gross v. FBL Fin. Servs., Inc., 557 U.S. 167 (2009), where the Supreme Court determined that the default “but for” causation standard applied.  Relying instead on § 2615(a)(1) as the basis of Woods’s claims, the court adopted the Department of Labor’s regulations requiring the “motivating” or “negative” factor causation standard for FMLA retaliation claims after concluding that Chevron deference required that outcome.  In Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984), of course, the Supreme Court held that deference should be given to administrative interpretation of statutes, so long as the statute is unclear and the interpretation is reasonable.

On remand, Woods likely will receive a new trial, where she will have to prove only that FMLA retaliation is one “motivating factor,” among others. Therefore, even if START successfully demonstrates that Woods performed poorly throughout the last twelve months of her tenure, or proves that she committed misconduct constituting a terminable offense, START must also show that the Plaintiff’s use of FMLA leave was not considered at all in the decision to terminate.

Implications

Although some district courts, like the District of Massachusetts, have recently held that the “but for” standard applies to FMLA retaliation claims, the recent trend in the Circuit Courts has been the opposite.  With the holding in Woods, the Second Circuit joins the Third Circuit in finding that the “motivating factor” causation standard applies to FMLA retaliation claims.  Thus, in litigation, employers should be prepared, particularly in these jurisdictions, to respond to this lower causation standard by proving that the same decision would have been made regardless of whether FMLA leave was taken.

This decision also should serve as a reminder to employers that, as discipline, discharge, and similar decisions are made, precautions must be taken to ensure that FMLA and other protected characteristics are not being considered in reaching those decisions. Human Resources and/or the legal department should review such decisions for discriminatory and retaliatory animus, and the non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory reasons for the decision should be contemporaneously documented.  Therefore, if the matter reaches litigation, these precautions will help rebut any claim that discrimination or retaliation motivated the adverse action.

In an important new decision, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently held that a qualifying patient who has been terminated from employment for testing positive for marijuana as a result of her lawful medical marijuana use may state a claim of disability discrimination under that state’s anti-discrimination statute. As we blogged with respect to a after a similar decision in Rhode Island, this holding has significant implications for employers that drug test for marijuana use because 29 states plus the District of Columbia have enacted legislation legalizing medical and/or recreational marijuana use.

Background

The plaintiff received an offer of employment conditioned on her passing a mandatory drug test. Before taking the test, the plaintiff told her would-be supervisor that she would test positive for marijuana because she was a qualifying medical marijuana patient under Massachusetts law and used marijuana to treat her Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome. The supervisor assured her that her medicinal use of marijuana would not be an issue with the company. After submitting a urine sample for the mandatory drug test, the plaintiff completed her first day of work without incident. At the conclusion of that day, however, she was terminated for testing positive for marijuana. She was told that the company did not consider whether the positive test was due to the lawful medicinal use of marijuana because it followed federal, not state, law.

Court’s Holding and Rationale

The Court rejected plaintiff’s claims under the Massachusetts medical marijuana act, finding there to be no private right of action under the statute, which merely decriminalizes medical marijuana use and does not provide express employment protections. Nonetheless, the Court allowed to the plaintiff’s disability discrimination claim to proceed. In so holding, the Court rejected the employer’s arguments that the plaintiff could not be a qualified handicapped person under the statute because the only accommodation she sought (possession and use of marijuana) is a federal crime, and that the plaintiff was discharged because she tested positive for an illegal substance, not because of her disability.

Rather, the Court concluded that, at least in some circumstances, an employer may have an obligation to accommodate the off-duty use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Like the Rhode Island trial court in Callaghan v. Darlington Fabrics Corporation, the Massachusetts Court determined that the medical marijuana act implicitly recognizes that off-site medical marijuana might be a permissible accommodation of an individual’s disability, and further concluded that the fact that marijuana may be illegal under federal law does not make it per se unreasonable as an accommodation.

The court rejected arguments that the federal classification of marijuana as a controlled, and thus illegal, substance should preempt the state law classification. First, the court noted that only the plaintiff, and not the employer, risked federal prosecution for using marijuana, and therefore the legality of its use should not impact a determination of its reasonableness as an accommodation. Second, the court concluded that to adopt the federal classification would be to improperly reject the determination of Massachusetts voters to legalize the drug for medical use.

Notably, just because the plaintiff may proceed on her disability discrimination claim does not mean she ultimately will succeed. This decision comes at the motion to dismiss stage, and the employer still has the opportunity to demonstrate on summary judgment or at trial that accommodating the plaintiff’s marijuana use would constitute an undue hardship.

Key Takeaways

This decision is the first in any state in which the applicable medical marijuana act merely decriminalizes to permit a disability discrimination claim to proceed on such facts. The decision calls into question whether, even in these states, employers may maintain zero tolerance marijuana testing policies. Prior to this year, decisions in other jurisdictions have held that employers operating in such jurisdictions may enforce such policies and take adverse action against medical marijuana users simply for testing positive. With claims in Rhode Island and now Massachusetts surviving motions to dismiss, these decisions may indicate a trend by courts to provide greater protections for lawful medical marijuana users.

Wherever employers operate, it is clear that they must take added precautions in administering their drug testing policies. While employers may continue to prohibit the on-duty use of or impairment by marijuana, employers must consider the following when testing for marijuana:

  • Employers should review their drug-testing policies to ensure that they (a) set clear expectations of employees; (b) provide justifications for the need for drug-testing; and (c) expressly allow for adverse action (including termination or refusal to hire) as a consequence of a positive drug test.
  • Employers may consider or be required to adjust or relax certain hiring policies to accommodate lawful medical marijuana users.
  • When an individual tests positive ostensibly because marijuana is used to treat a disability, employers, particularly those in Massachusetts, may be required to engage in the interactive process. First, however, employers should evaluate whether the individual has a qualified disability that warrants an accommodation and whether allowing the individual to use medicinal marijuana would allow rather than hinder the individual’s ability to perform the essential functions of the job.
  • Employers concerned with the application of federal law may, during the interactive process, explore whether another equally effective medical alternatives to marijuana use may enable the individual to perform the essential functions of the job. Note, however, employers in states requiring accommodation of medical marijuana use may be prohibited from exploring these alternatives.
  • Where no such alternative exists or can be agreed upon, employers who cannot accommodate even lawful, off-duty medicinal marijuana use must be prepared to demonstrate that such accommodation would constitute an undue hardship.
  • Any such decision should be well-documented and well-coordinated by the relevant stakeholders.
  • In any case, hiring managers should be trained not to provide assurances as to whether and how marijuana use may be accommodated. If an applicant or employee discloses marijuana use, that disclosure should immediately be referred to Human Resources and addressed by a Human Resources professional in coordination with counsel.

Clearly, employers enforcing zero-tolerance policies should be prepared for future challenges to such policies. In Massachusetts as well as in those states prohibiting discrimination against and/or requiring accommodation of medical marijuana users, such challenges are now more likely to survive a motion to dismiss.