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.

The Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) recently released a brief, nine-page guide for California employers, which was prepared in conjunction with the California Sexual Harassment Task Force.  This guide is intended to assist employers in developing an effective anti-harassment program, including information about how to properly investigate reports of harassment and understand what recourse is available.  The guide addresses all forms of workplace harassment, including harassment based on sex.

Specifically, the guide provides employers with information regarding the particular components for an effective anti-harassment program in the workplace. The DFEH also gives employers step-by-step guidance for how to properly handle harassment complaints and any resulting investigations.  The guide discusses topics such as confidentiality during the investigation, the timeliness of an investigation, and investigator qualifications and training.  In its discussion of proper investigations, the DFEH provides nine “credibility factors” which an investigator may utilize in making a determination. These factors include a party’s motive to lie, any history of dishonesty, the manner of testimony – including hesitant speech and indirect answers – and the party’s demeanor during the investigation.  The guide also addresses what employers should do in unusual situations, such as: what to do when the target of harassment asks an employer not to act, how to investigate anonymous complaints, and how to handle retaliation.  The DFEH emphasizes the employer’s legal obligation to prevent and correct unlawful harassing behavior, and provides information regarding remedial measures. While some of these tips may seem intuitive, this guide is a good refresher for even the savviest of employers.

In conjunction with the guide, the DFEH also released an easy-to-follow brochure and corresponding poster specifically addressing sexual harassment, which employers can provide to their employees, in compliance with California Government Code section 12950(b). The brochure and poster echo many of the same tips as the guide, but focus solely on sexual harassment.  The poster and brochure include an explanation of what constitutes sexual harassment, provide examples of harassing behavior that may occur in the workplace, detail the civil remedies for harassing conduct, and outline an employer’s responsibilities and liability when allegations of sexual harassment are made.

Employers should utilize these DFEH resources when investigating and responding to claims of harassment made in the workplace.

Our colleague Joshua A. Stein, a Member of the Firm at Epstein Becker Green, has a post on the Retail Labor and Employment Law blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the health care industry: “Latest Website Accessibility Decision Further Marginalizes the Viability of Due Process and Primary Jurisdiction Defenses.”

Following is an excerpt:

In the latest of an increasing number of recent website accessibility decisions, in Gorecki v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. (Case No.: 2:17-cv-01131-JFW-SK), the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California denied Hobby Lobby’s motion to dismiss a website accessibility lawsuit on due process and primary jurisdiction grounds.  In doing so, the Hobby Lobby decision further calls into question the precedential value of the Central District of California’s recent outlier holding in Robles v. Dominos Pizza LLC (Case No.: 2:16-cv-06599-SJO-FFM) which provided businesses with hope that the tide of recent decisions might turn in their favor. …

Read the full post here.

What obligations does an employer have to an employee returning from leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)?

What must the employer do if it was forced to fill that employee’s position during the employee’s absence?

How long after the employee returns must the employer wait before taking an adverse action against that employee?

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently provided guidance to employers who frequently face these questions in the context of FMLA administration. In Waag v. Sotera Defense Solutions, Inc., the employer, Sotera, filled the position of an employee, Gary Waag, while he was out on FMLA leave, and assigned Waag to a different position when he returned.  Less than six weeks later, Sotera laid off Waag in a workforce reduction.  Waag filed suit claiming FMLA interference and retaliation.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the case, holding that Sotera was not required to return Waag to his original position and that Sotera reassigned him to a bona fide equivalent position, not a “sham position” meant to mask a discriminatory or retaliatory reason for his termination.  Most importantly, the court held that the “temporal proximity” of six weeks’ time between Waag’s return from medical leave and his termination was insufficient by itself for him to succeed on his FMLA interference claim.

Plaintiff Waag took a two-month medical leave to recuperate from a severe head injury. During Waag’s absence, Sotera filled his position.  Upon his return, Waag was assigned to a new position in a different division, albeit with the same salary, benefits, and terms and conditions of employment.  Six weeks after Waag returned to work, a drastic drop in work and revenue caused Sotera to begin a series of reductions in force, and Waag was included in the first round of layoffs.  Waag filed suit, alleging that Sotera violated his FMLA rights by putting him in a “sham position” that Sotera planned to eliminate shortly after his return from leave.

The Fourth Circuit rejected Waag’s claims. Addressing Waag’s claim of FMLA interference for failure to restore him to the same or an equivalent position, the court emphasized that Waag did not have an absolute right to reinstatement to his original position.  Rather, an employee “has the right to be restored either to his original position or to an equivalent position,” and an employer is not required to restore the employee to his original position if that position is no longer vacant.  Sotera fulfilled its obligations under the FMLA by reassigning Waag to a bona fide equivalent position with “substantially similar duties and responsibilities.”

Regarding Waag’s claim of FMLA interference based on his termination, the court held that although the close, six-week temporal proximity between his protected activity (medical leave) and the adverse action (termination) could demonstrate causation for purposes of establishing a prima facie case, it was insufficient standing alone to satisfy Waag’s burden of showing that his reassignment and the budgetary reduction-in-force were pretext for his termination.  Finally, the court rejected Waag’s claim of FMLA retaliation for failing to prove retaliatory intent.

This decision provides important guidance for employers reintegrating employees returning from FMLA leave. It makes clear that employers are not required to restore an employee to the exact same position held before taking leave, particularly where the original position had to be filled during the employee’s leave.  Indeed, employers are not required to hold open the employee’s original position while that person remains on leave.  Employers instead may place the employee in an equivalent position with the same status, pay, benefits, and “substantially similar duties and responsibilities.”  If intervening factors arise causing the employer to terminate the employee, either while on leave or shortly after returning from leave, the temporal proximity between the leave and the termination decision alone will not substantiate an FMLA claim – at least in the Fourth Circuit.  (Employers should be aware that courts in other jurisdictions may more closely scrutinize the temporal proximity and rely upon it in assessing pretext.)  In these instances, however, it is particularly important that an employer can point to documentary evidence of the legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons supporting the termination decision.  As a best practice, employers should contemporaneously document and clearly communicate their reasons for taking such adverse actions.

Finally, while the subject was not raised in this case, employers should always be cognizant of their obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), especially after an employee has exhausted FMLA leave. Depending on the employee’s reason for leave, the ADA may impose additional obligations – beyond those of the FMLA –to extend the employee’s leave, transfer or reassign the employee, or otherwise accommodate the employee.  In matters involving the interplay of the FMLA and ADA, employers are advised to consult with counsel to determine the proper course of action.

On June 5, 2017, in Advocate Health Care Network et al. v. Stapleton et. al, the Supreme Court unanimously held that employee benefit plans maintained by church-affiliated hospitals were exempt from the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (the “ERISA”), regardless of whether the plan was actually established by a church. The plaintiffs consisted of current and former employees of three church-affiliated non-profits who ran hospitals and healthcare facilities that offered their employees defined benefit pension plans established by the hospitals and managed by internal hospital employee benefits committees.  The plaintiffs filed class actions in three different federal districts alleging that the hospital defined benefit pension plans were not entitled to an exemption under ERISA because they were not established by a church and therefore should be required, among other things, to meet the minimum-funding obligations of ERISA. The pension plans at issue were severely underfunded and ERISA would have required the hospitals to potentially contribute billions of dollars to satisfy the ERISA minimum-funding standards.

Under ERISA, private employers that offer pension plans must abide by a set of rules created to protect plan participants and ensure plan solvency. Section 4(b)(2) of ERISA, however, specifically exempts the employee benefits plans of churches. Section 3(33) of ERISA originally defined a church plan to mean a plan “established and maintained” for its employees by a church or by a convention or association of churches. In 1980, Congress expanded the church-plan definition to state that an “employee of a church” would include an employee of a church-affiliated organization and to add that a church plan includes a plan “maintained” by a “principal-purpose” organization. A “principal-purpose” organization is an organization controlled by or associated with a church or a convention or association of churches the principal purpose or function of which is the administration or funding of a plan or program providing retirement or welfare benefits to employees of such organizations. The Supreme Court found that, under the best reading of the statute, Congress intended that the church plan exemption under ERISA include plans adopted by principal-purpose organizations, even if not established by the church to which the principal-purpose organization is affiliated. In a concurring opinion, Justice Sotomayor agreed with the interpretation of ERISA but cautioned that Congress, when enacting the 1980 amendment, probably did not envision that this exemption would apply to large organizations that employ thousands of employees, operate for-profit subsidies, earn billions of dollars in revenue, and compete in the secular market with companies that must bear the cost of compliance under ERISA. Although she agreed with the majority’s conclusion, she wondered whether the current reality may prompt Congress to make changes.

Takeaway

The Supreme Court’s decision provides assurances to church-affiliated organizations that have treated their employee benefit plans as exempt church plans under ERISA. The organizations should be mindful, however, that as the Court specifically noted, the issue of whether  the hospitals qualified as “principal-purpose” organizations was not brought before it.  Therefore, it remains to be seen how the lower courts address the level and quality of a relationship that must be maintained between a church and a health care provider to qualify it as a “principal-purpose” organization.

Our colleague Joshua A. Stein, a Member of the Firm at Epstein Becker Green, has a post on the Retail Labor and Employment Law blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the health care industry: “Nation’s First Website Accessibility ADA Trial Verdict Is In and It’s Not Good for Places of Public Accommodation.”

Following is an excerpt:

After years of ongoing and frequent developments on the website accessibility front, we now finally have – what is generally believed to be – the very first post-trial ADA verdict regarding website accessibility. In deciding Juan Carlos Gil vs. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc. (Civil Action No. 16-23020-Civ-Scola) – a matter in which Winn-Dixie first made an unsuccessful motion to dismiss the case (prompting the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) to file a Statement of Interest) – U.S. District Judge Robert N. Scola, Jr. of the Southern District of Florida issued a Verdict and Order ruling in favor of serial Plaintiff, Juan Carlos Gil, holding that Winn-Dixie violated Title III of the ADA (“Title III”) by not providing an accessible public website and, thus, not providing individuals with disabilities with “full and equal enjoyment.”

Judge Scola based his decision on the fact that Winn-Dixie’s website, “is heavily integrated with Winn-Dixie’s physical store locations” that are clearly places of public accommodation covered by Title III and, “operates as a gateway to the physical store locations” (e.g., by providing coupons and a store locator and allowing customers to refill prescriptions). …

Read the full post here.

In Good Samaritan Medical Center v. National Labor Relations Board, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reversed the decision of the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) requiring a hospital in Massachusetts to rehire an employee it had terminated for violating the hospital’s general civility policy when he challenged a union representative during her presentation about union membership.    In reaching this decision, the First Circuit closely scrutinized the record and concluded that the NLRB overlooked substantial evidence revealing that the hospital terminated the employee, not because he voiced opposition to union membership, but due to the rude and intimidating manner in which he did so.  The First Circuit recognized that the hospital was entitled to enforce its civility policy (which requires employees to treat coworkers with respect, patience and courtesy, and to refrain from abusive and disruptive behavior), and that the violating employee was not immune from termination solely because the discussion in which plaintiff was engaged when he misbehaved pertained to union membership.  This decision should provide some comfort for all employers who have hesitated to terminate an employee because the employee’s otherwise terminable misconduct is connected, even tangentially, to activity protected by the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”).

Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) grants employees the right to form and join unions and the right to refrain from joining a union.  See 29 U.S.C. §157.  Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA prohibits an employer from interfering with, restraining, or coercing employees in their exercise of these rights.  See 29 U.S.C.§ 158(a)(1).  Employers are expressly prohibited from discriminating “in regard to hire or tenure of employment or any term or condition of employment to encourage or discourage membership in any labor organization.” See 29 U.S.C. §158(a)(3).   Plaintiff Camille Legley (“Legley”) claimed that the hospital violated this provision of the NLRA when it terminated him after he challenged certain statements made by Darlene Lavigne (“Lavigne”), a long-term employee of the hospital, about union membership during his new hire orientation.  Specifically, when Legley understood Lavigne to say that he had to join the union, he objected by interrupting her and speaking to her in a rude and aggressive manner.  While the description of what transpired at the meeting varied from witness to witness, the record revealed that the conversation escalated with both Legley and Lavigne becoming irritated.  After the meeting, Lavigne contacted the hospital’s human resources representative and complained that Legley “really gave [her] a hard time.”  Lavigne also called her union delegate and complained that Legley was very rude during the orientation and repeatedly interrupted her.  Lavigne cried during this telephone call when reporting what had transpired.  Recognizing that Lavigne was extremely upset by how Legley spoke to her, the union delegate contacted the hospital’s facilities manager and reported “how disruptive Legley was at the meeting and how upset he got at Lavigne.”  Based on what was reported to them, the hospital’s manager and human resources manager, citing the hospital’s general civility policy, decided to terminate Legley for his disrespectful behavior during the orientation.

Following a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) concluded that both the hospital and the union violated Section 8 of the NLRA by terminating Legley’s employment.  In reaching his conclusion, the ALJ applied the holding in Atlantic Steel Co., 245 N.L.R.B. 814 (1979), which focuses on whether an employee engaged in conduct normally protected by the NLRA  loses the benefit of that protection because his conduct is “opprobrious” or offensive.  The ALJ concluded that Legley did not act in an overly aggressive manner or make any threatening or profane statements.  Instead, the ALJ concluded that “at most, both Legley and Lavigne raised their voices when he said he didn’t have to become a union member and she said that he did.”  The ALJ found that nothing that Legley said or did at the orientation compelled a conclusion that he lost the protection of the NLRA as a result of any misconduct on his part.  Concluding that Langley’s statements about union membership and the tone in which he made them could not be “disentangled,” the ALJ concluded that the hospital’s decision to terminate violated the NLRA.  The NLRB affirmed this decision and ordered the hospital to reinstate Langley and awarded Langley back pay damages.

The First Circuit reversed this decision.  Recognizing that Legley engaged in activity protected by the NLRA by asserting his right not to join a union, the First Circuit opined that “the question is whether Legley was discharged because of his protected activity or for some other, lawful, reason.”  Criticizing  the NLRB for ignoring “substantial evidence” that the hospital fired Legley because of his bad behavior, not due to his skepticism towards the union, the Court engaged in a thorough review of the testimony elicited during the hearing before the ALJ in an effort to determine what actually motivated the hospital’s decision.    The First Circuit found that the ALJ’s application of the holding in Atlantic Steel and focus on whether Legley’s misconduct was bad enough to warrant the loss of NLRA protection was a mistake.  Instead, the First Circuit reasoned that the ALJ should have applied the analysis set forth in Wright Line, 251 N.L.R.B. 1083 (1981), which focuses on whether an employee was terminated because of the protected conduct or because of his unprotected behavior.  Analyzing the testimony provided by the witnesses involved in the decision to terminate, the First Circuit found that “their only concern was Legley’s difficult interaction” with Lavigne at the orientation, not with the fact that he voiced skepticism about joining the union.   Accordingly, the First Circuit reversed the NLRB’s decision and upheld the hospital’s decision to terminate Legley.

The First Circuit’s decision in Good Samaritan Medical Center v. National Labor Relations Board should provide some comfort to employers confronted with difficult personnel decisions involving employee misconduct that is closely connected with conduct that is protected by the NLRA.   Following this decision, employers should find comfort in the fact that both the NLRB and the Courts should longer summarily conclude that a termination decision violates the NLRA simply because an employee’s misconduct is tied to protected activity.  Instead, this decision reflects the need for the NLRB and the Courts to closely scrutinize the facts underlying a termination decision to ascertain the actual motivation for the decision.  So long as the facts reveal that the employer reasonably believed the employee engaged in misconduct and the decision to terminate for such misconduct is consistent with the employer’s policies and practice, the employer’s business decision should be upheld.

shutterstock_633954278In a departure from the recently developing law, a federal court judge from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) may cover gender dysphoria, and other conditions related to gender identity disorder – opening the door to expanding employment protections to some transgender individuals under the ADA.

In Blatt v. Cabela’s Retail, Inc., a transgender woman filed Title VII and ADA claims against her former employer claiming that she had suffered disability discrimination and retaliation based on her gender dysphoria. The plaintiff alleged that her gender dysphoria was characterized by clinically significant stress and substantially limited one or more of her major life activities, including but not limited to, interacting with others, reproducing, and social and occupational functions. The employer sought dismissal of the ADA claims on the grounds that gender identity disorders are expressly excluded from coverage under Section 12211 of the ADA. In response, the plaintiff argued that the ADA’s exclusion of gender identity disorders violated her equal protection rights under the Constitution.

What makes this case unique, and its holding potentially narrow, is its reliance on the legal “constitutional-avoidance canon” which, if possible, requires the court to interpret a statute in a way that avoids any constitutional questions raised by the plaintiff. Here, the court interpreted the ADA to allow plaintiff to proceed with her disability discrimination claim because “this interpretation allows the Court to avoid the constitutional questions raised” by the plaintiff.

In reaching its holding, the court noted that two categories of conditions are explicitly excluded from protection under the ADA: non-disabling conditions concerning sexual orientation and identity (e.g., homosexuality and bisexuality), and conditions associated with harmful or illegal conduct (e.g., pedophilia and kleptomania). The court narrowly interpreted these exceptions and found that the ADA does not exclude protection of “conditions that are actually disabling but that are not associated with harmful or illegal conduct” – such as the gender dysphoria affecting the plaintiff. This line of reasoning in many ways mimics how the ADA approaches pregnancy: while the ADA does not cover ordinary pregnancies, complications arising from the pregnancy can trigger ADA protection.

The court also noted that this interpretation is consistent with the Third Circuit’s mandate that the ADA is “a remedial statute, designed to eliminate discrimination against the disabled in all facets of society. . . [and] must be broadly construed to effectuate its purposes.” Thus, the judge wrote, any exceptions in the ADA “should be read narrowly in order to permit the statute to achieve a broad reach.” As such, the Court denied the employer’s motion to dismiss.

This is yet another case in a recent wave of litigation concerning protections for LGBT individuals under the federal employment statutes, including Title VII. This ADA challenge represents a different approach to gender equity litigation that will warrant close monitoring to see how it impacts the development of jurisprudence – particularly since it is possible that the court may not have ever engaged in this exercise had the plaintiff had not raised a constitutional argument. In the meantime, employers should be mindful of their duties under the ADA to accommodate disabling impairments, even if the underlying condition is arguably not covered by the ADA.

The intersection of employment and marijuana laws has just gotten cloudier, thanks to a recent decision by the Rhode Island Superior Court interpreting that state’s medical marijuana and discrimination laws. In Callaghan v. Darlington Fabrics Corporation, the court broke with the majority of courts in other states in holding that an employer’s enforcement of its neutral drug testing policy to deny employment to an applicant because she held a medical marijuana card violated the anti-discrimination provisions of the state medical marijuana law.

Background

Plaintiff applied for an internship at Darlington, and during an initial meeting, she signed a statement acknowledging she would be required to take a drug test prior to being hired.  At that meeting, Plaintiff disclosed that she had a medical marijuana card.  Several days later, Plaintiff indicated to Darlington’s human resources representative that she was currently using medical marijuana and that as a result she would test positive on the pre-employment drug test.  Darlington informed Plaintiff that it was unable to hire her because she would fail the drug test and thus could not comply with the company’s drug-free workplace policy.

Plaintiff filed a lawsuit alleging Darlington violated the Hawkins-Slater Act (“the Act”), the state’s medical marijuana law, and the Rhode Island Civil Rights Act (“RICRA”). The Hawkins-Slater Act provides that “[n]o school, employer, or landlord may refuse to enroll, employ, or lease to, or otherwise penalize, a person solely for his or her status as a cardholder.”  After concluding that Act provides for a private right of action, the court held that Darlington’s refusal to hire Plaintiff violated the Act’s prohibition against refusing to employ a cardholder.  Citing another provision that the Act should not be construed to require an employer to accommodate “the medical use of marijuana in any workplace,” Darlington contended that Act does not require employers to accommodate medical marijuana use, and that doing so here would create workplace safety concerns.  The court rejected this argument, concluding:

  • The use of the phrase “in any workplace” suggests that statute does require employers to accommodate medical marijuana use outside the workplace.
  • Darlington’s workplace safety argument ignored the language of the Act, which prohibits “any person to undertake any task under the influence of marijuana, when doing so would constitute negligence or professional malpractice.” In other words, employers can regulate medical marijuana use by prohibiting workers from being under the influence while on duty, rather than refusing to hire medical marijuana users at all.
  • By hiring Plaintiff, Darlington would not be required to make accommodations “as they are defined in the employment discrimination context,” such as restructuring jobs, modifying work schedules, or even modifying the existing drug and alcohol policy (which prohibited the illegal use or possession of drugs on company property, but did not state that a positive drug test would result in the rescission of a job offer or termination of employment).

The court thus granted Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment on her Hawkins-Slater Act claims.

With respect to Plaintiff’s RICRA claim, the court found that Plaintiff’s status as a medical marijuana cardholder was a signal to Darlington that she could not have obtained the card without a debilitating medical condition that would have caused her to be disabled. Therefore, the Court found that Plaintiff is disabled and that she had stated a claim for disability discrimination under RICRA because Darlington refused to hire her due to her status as a cardholder.  Importantly, the court held that the allegations supported a disparate treatment theory.

Finally, while noting that “Plaintiff’s drug use is legal under Rhode Island law, but illegal under federal law [i.e. the Controlled Substances Act (the CSA”)],” the Court found that the CSA did not preempt the Hawkins-Slater Act or RICRA. According to the court, the CSA’s purpose of “illegal importation, manufacture, distribution and possession and improper use of controlled substances” was quite distant from the “realm of employment and anti-discrimination law.”

Key Takeaways

While this decision likely will be appealed, it certainly adds additional confusion for employers in this unsettled area of the law – particularly those who have and enforce zero-tolerance drug policies. The decision departs from cases in other jurisdictions – such as California, Colorado, Montana, Oregon, and Washington – that have held that employers may take adverse action against medical marijuana users.  The laws in those states, however, merely decriminalize marijuana and, unlike the Rhode Island law, do not provide statutory protections in favor of marijuana users.  In those states in which marijuana use may not form the basis for an adverse employment decision, or in which marijuana use must be accommodated, the Callaghan decision may signal a movement to uphold employment protections for medical marijuana users.

While this issue continues to wend its way through the courts in Rhode Island and elsewhere, employers clearly may continue to prohibit the on-duty use of or impairment by marijuana. Employers operating in states that provide employment protections to marijuana users may consider allowing legal, off-duty use, while taking adverse action against those users that come to work under the influence.

Of course, 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 choosing to follow 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; (b) 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.  Those states may require the adjustment or relaxation of a hiring policy to accommodate a medical marijuana user.

The Callaghan decision also serves as a reminder of the intersection of medical marijuana use and disability.  Here, the court allowed a disability discrimination claim to proceed even though Plaintiff never revealed the nature of her underlying disability because cardholder status and disability were so inextricably linked.

Finally, employers should be mindful of their drug policies’ applicability not only to current employees, but to applicants as well. In Callaghan, the court found the employer in violation of state law before the employee was even offered the internship or had taken the drug test.

Our colleague Sharon L. Lippett, a Member of the Firm at Epstein Becker Green, has a post on the Financial Services Employment Law blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the health care industry: “Potential Impact of Trump Tax Reform Plan on Retirement Plans: What’s Old Could Be New Again.”

Following is an excerpt:

While Congress’ attention has most recently been focused on the American Health Care Act, that bill will most likely not be the only proposed legislation that Congress will consider in 2017. It appears that a tax reform plan (the “2017 Tax Proposal”), which could also have a wide-reaching impact, is also on the agenda.

If the 2017 Proposal includes provisions relating to defined contribution retirement plans sponsored by private employers, such as 401(k) plans, the impact will be felt by employers and investment managers, as well as by plan participants. While the Trump Administration has stated that the current version of its 2017 Tax Proposal does not reduce pre-tax contributions to 401(k) plans, speculation continues that a later draft may include curtailment of these contributions or other changes with a similar impact. …

Read the full post here.