The New York City Commission on Human Rights published legal enforcement guidance defining an individual’s right to wear “natural hair, treated or untreated hairstyles such a locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots, fades, Afros, and/or the right to keep hair in an uncut or untrimmed state.”   The guidance applies to workplace grooming and appearance policies “that ban, limit, or otherwise restrict natural hair or hairstyles”:

[W]hile an employer can impose requirements around maintaining a work appropriate appearance, [employers] cannot enforce such policies in a discriminatory manner and/or target specific hair textures or hairstyles. Therefore, a grooming policy to maintain a ‘neat and orderly’ appearance that prohibits locs or cornrows is discriminatory against Black people because it presumes that these hairstyles, which are commonly associated with Black people, are inherently messy or disorderly. This type of policy is also rooted in racially discriminatory stereotypes about Black people, and racial stereotyping is unlawful discrimination under the [New York City Human Rights Law].

A grooming or appearance policy prohibiting natural hair and/or treated/untreated hairstyles to conform to the employer’s expectations “constitutes direct evidence of disparate treatment based on race” in violation of the City’s Human Rights Law. Examples of such policies include:

  • A grooming policy prohibiting twists, locs, braids, cornrows, Afros, Bantu knots, or fades which are commonly associated with Black people.
  • A grooming policy requiring employees to alter the state of their hair to conform to the company’s appearance standards, including having to straighten or relax hair (i.e, use of chemicals or heat).
  • A grooming policy banning hair that extends a certain number of inches from the scalp thereby limiting Afros.

Workplace policies prohibiting natural hair and/or treated/untreated hairstyles may not be implemented “to promote a certain corporate image, because of a customer preference, or under the guise of speculative health or safety concerns.” Where there is a legitimate health or safety concern, alternative ways to address the concern (e.g., hair ties, nets, head coverings and alternative safety equipment) must be considered before imposing a ban or restriction on the employee’s hairstyle.

Employers within New York City should review their workplace grooming and appearance policies to ensure compliance with the newly issued legal enforcement guidance.

Two recent federal cases illustrate why employers – even federal contractors – must be cognizant of relevant state-law pronouncements regarding the use of marijuana (i.e., cannabis) by employees. While one case found in favor of the employer, and the other in favor of the employee, these decisions have emphasized that state law protections for users of medical marijuana are not preempted by federal laws such as the Drug-Free Workplace Act (DFWA). Employers must craft a thoughtful and considered approach to marijuana in the workplace, and in most cases should not take a zero-tolerance approach to marijuana.

Ninth Circuit Finds in Favor of Employer Who Discharged Employee for Positive Drug Test

In Carlson v. Charter Communication, LLC, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a lawsuit brought by an employee who alleged discrimination under the Montana Medical Marijuana Act (MMA) because he was discharged for testing positive for marijuana use. The plaintiff, a medical marijuana cardholder under Montana state law, tested positive for THC (a cannabinoid) after an accident in a company-owned vehicle. His employer, a federal contractor required to comply with the DFWA, terminated his employment because the positive test result violated its employment policy.

The District Court of Montana held that the employer was within its rights to discharge the plaintiff because (1) the DFWA preempts the MMA on the issue of whether a federal contractor can employ a medical marijuana user; and (2) the MMA does not provide employment protections to medical marijuana cardholders. Indeed, the MMA specifically states that employers are not required to accommodate the use of medical marijuana, and the Act does not permit a cause of action against an employer for wrongful discharge or discrimination. The Ninth Circuit rejected this rationale. Because the MMA does not prevent employers from prohibiting employees from using marijuana and does not permit employees for suing for discrimination or wrongful termination, the Ninth Circuit held that the MMA does not preclude federal contractors from complying with the DFWA and thus found no conflict.

The plaintiff asserted that the provisions of the MMA exempting employers from accommodating registered users and prohibiting such users from bringing wrongful discharge or discrimination lawsuits against employers are unconstitutional and sought certification of the question to the Montana Supreme Court. The Ninth Circuit rejected this request because, it determined, the Montana Supreme Court already decided the issue. The MMA and the specific sections challenged by the plaintiff appropriately balance Montana’s legitimate state interest in regulating access to a controlled substance while avoiding entanglement with federal law, which classifies the substance as illegal.

Plaintiff Wins Summary Judgment Against Employer That Rescinded Job Offer Due to Positive Test

If federal law does not preempt state law on the issue of marijuana, then in certain states – like Connecticut – employers will be more susceptible to discrimination claims from marijuana users. In Noffsinger v. SSC Niantic Operating Company, the District of Connecticut granted summary judgment to a plaintiff-employee of Bride Brook Nursing & Rehabilitation Center who used medical marijuana to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) and whose offer was rescinded for testing positive for THC during a post-offer drug screen. Plaintiff filed a discrimination claim under the Connecticut Palliative Use of Marijuana Act (“PUMA”), which makes it illegal for an employer to refuse to hire a person or discharge, penalize, or threaten an employee “solely on the basis of such person’s or employee’s status as a qualifying patient or primary caregiver.”

We covered a previous decision in this case, in which the court held that PUMA is not preempted by the federal Controlled Substance Act (“CSA”), the Americans with Disabilities Act, or the Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act (“FDCA”). The decision was notable then for being the first federal decision to hold that the CSA does not preempt a state medical marijuana law’s anti-discrimination provision, a departure from a previous federal decision in New Mexico.

In this recent decision, the District Court again considered whether PUMA was preempted by federal law. In ruling for the Plaintiff, the court rejected Bride Brook’s argument that its practices fall within an exception to PUMA’s anti-discrimination provision because they are “required by federal law or required to obtain federal funding.” Bride Brook argued that in order to comply with DFWA, which requires federal contractors to make a good faith effort to maintain a drug-free workplace, it could not hire plaintiff because of her failed pre-employment drug-test. The court was not persuaded, concluding that the DFWA does not require drug testing, nor does it prohibit federal contractors from employing people who use illegal drugs outside the workplace. The court noted that simply because Bride Brook’s zero-tolerance policy went beyond the requirements of the DFWA does not mean that hiring the plaintiff would violate the Act.

The court also rejected Bride Brook’s argument that the federal False Claims Act (“FCA”) prohibits employers from hiring marijuana users because doing so would amount to defrauding the federal government. Because no federal law prohibits employers from hiring individuals who use medicinal marijuana outside of work, employers do not defraud the government by hiring those individuals.

Lastly, the court rejected the theory that PUMA only prohibits discrimination on the basis of one’s registered status and not the actual use of marijuana, as such a holding would undermine the very purpose for which the employee obtained the status.

What These Decisions Mean for Employers

These decisions are notable for the fact that the federal courts refused to find the state laws were preempted by federal law. Importantly, neither found that the DFWA preempts state law, which means that even federal contractors must be aware of and follow state law with respect to marijuana use by employees. Thus, in states in which employers may not discriminate against medical marijuana users – such as Connecticut – all employers must take care not to make adverse employment decisions based solely on off-duty marijuana use and, in certain states, must accommodate medical marijuana use. A majority of states and the District of Columbia now permit the use of medical marijuana; employers, including federal contractors, should be mindful of these statutes and consult with counsel to ensure their employment policies are compliant.

Our colleagues at Epstein Becker Green has a post on the Retail Labor and Employment Law blog that will be of interest to our readers in the health care industry: “NYC Commission on Human Rights Issues Guidance on Employers’ Obligations Under the City’s Disability Discrimination Laws.”

Following is an excerpt:

The New York City Commission on Human Rights (“Commission”) recently issued a 146-page guide titled “Legal Enforcement Guidance on Discrimination on the Basis of Disability” (“Guidance”) to educate employers and other covered entities on their responsibilities to job applicants and employees with respect to both preventing disability discrimination and accommodating disabilities. The New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”) defines “disability discrimination” more broadly than does state or federal disability law, and the Guidance is useful in understanding how the Commission will be interpreting and enforcing the law. …

Read the full post here.

In a significant decision on Wednesday, March 6, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held in EEOC v. R.G. &. G.R. Harris Funeral Homes that discrimination against a worker on the basis of gender identity or transitioning status constitutes sex discrimination that violates Title VII.

In R.G. & G.R., the funeral home’s owner fired funeral director Aime Stephens after she informed him she intended to begin a gender transition and present herself as a woman at work. In finding gender identity to be covered by Title VII, the Sixth Circuit also upheld the EEOC’s claim that the funeral home’s dress code, which has different dress and grooming instructions for men and women, discriminates on the basis of sex.

In reaching its decision, the court concluded that “it is analytically impossible to fire an employee based on that employee’s status as a transgender person without being motivated, at least in part, by the employee’s sex.” As the court explained, “Discrimination on the basis of transgender and transitioning status is necessarily discrimination on the basis of sex.”  Finding that Stephens would not have been fired if she had been a woman who sought to comply with the women’s dress code, the court determined that Stephens’s sex impermissibly affected the termination decision.

Harris Funeral Homes attempted to defend its termination decision under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), but the majority rejected this argument: “RFRA provides the funeral home with no relief because continuing to employ Stephens would not, as a matter of law, substantially burden [owner Thomas] Rost’s religious exercise, and even if it did, the EEOC has shown that enforcing Title VII here is the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling interest in combating and eradicating sex discrimination.”

In addition to providing Title VII coverage to transgender and gender nonconforming individuals, the Sixth Circuit’s decision marks another victory for the EEOC, whose position was similarly adopted less than two weeks ago by the Second Circuit in Zarda v. Altitude Express. In that case, the Second Circuit held that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is discrimination based on sex and prohibited by Title VII.  As federal courts begin to reexamine earlier rulings that deny coverage to LGBT employees, employers are advised to conform their policies to EEOC guidance prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity or expression.

Featured on Employment Law This Week: Second Circuit: Title VII Covers Sexual Orientation Discrimination.

“Legal doctrine evolves.” Those words from the Second Circuit spoke volumes as the court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits sexual orientation discrimination, overturning their own long-standing precedent. The court ruled in favor of a skydiving instructor who claimed he was fired for telling a client he was gay.

The majority opinion began by looking at whether sex is a motivating factor in the alleged unlawful practice. And, in this case, looking at sexual orientation discrimination, the court concluded that sex is a factor and inextricably linked to sexual orientation, and therefore sexual orientation acts as a proxy for sex. The Second Circuit now joins the Seventh Circuit in finding that Title VII does protect against sexual orientation discrimination, and deepens a circuit split with the Eleventh Circuit, which went the other way last year.

Watch the segment below and read our recent post.

On January 8, 2018, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed new legislation (the “Amendment”) amending the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”) to add breastfeeding as a protected class under the law. The Amendment, which takes effect immediately, makes it unlawful to discriminate or retaliate against an employee that the employer knows, or should know, is either breastfeeding or expressing milk for her infant child.

The Amendment also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to nursing women, unless it would result in an undue hardship to the employer, and specifically requires employers to provide:

  1. Reasonable break time each day for the employee to express breast milk for her child; and
  2. A suitable location with privacy, other than a toilet stall, in close proximity to the work area for the employee to express breast milk for her child.

To determine whether an accommodation would provide an undue hardship, the NJLAD provides that the following factors should be considered:

  • the overall size of the employer’s business with respect to the number of employees, number and type of facilities, and size of budget;
  • the type of the employer’s operations, including the composition and structure of the employer’s workforce;
  • the nature and cost of the accommodation needed, taking into consideration the availability of tax credits, tax deductions, and outside funding; and
  • the extent to which the accommodation would involve waiver of an essential requirement of a job as opposed to a tangential or non-business necessity requirement.

The Amendment also provides that breastfeeding employees are entitled to paid or unpaid leave as a reasonable accommodation, in the same manner as “provided to other employees not affected by pregnancy or breastfeeding but similar in their ability or inability to work.” While the Amendment does not provide an express right to leave, it requires employers to treat such a leave request as they would any other request for leave.

While many New Jersey employers have already been subject to similar requirements to provide breaks and private spaces for nursing mothers to express breast milk in accordance with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s 2010 Amendment to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), the key differences between the breast feeding protections in the FLSA and in the NJLAD are:

  1. Which employees are covered? The FLSA’s protections apply only to “non-exempt” workers (i.e., those workers entitled to overtime pay), while the NJLAD’s protections apply to all New Jersey employees.
  2. Which employers are covered? Small businesses (fewer than 50 employees) may not be covered by the FLSA break-time-for-nursing-mothers provision if they can demonstrate that compliance with the provision would impose an undue hardship. The NJLAD contains a similar “undue hardship” exception, but does not limit the exception to small businesses.
  3. How long must employers accommodate nursing mothers? Protections under the FLSA apply up until one year after the birth of the child, while the NJLAD’s protections do not provide a time limit and apply while the mother is “breast feeding her infant child.” The NJLAD does not define “infant child.”

What should employers do?

New Jersey employers should review their procedures and practices to ensure compliance with the Amendment by:

  1. Reviewing anti-discrimination and reasonable accommodation policies to ensure compliance with the law;
  2. Training supervisors and managers on how to handle accommodation requests related to breastfeeding;
  3. Providing an employee who is breastfeeding with reasonable break times and a suitable private location, other than a toilet stall, in close proximity to the work area to express breast milk for her child.

In addition, employers should consult with counsel before denying an employee an accommodation related to breastfeeding to determine whether an “undue hardship” may be established.

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.

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.

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.

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.