In the November 2018 mid-term elections, state ballot measures for the legalization of marijuana were approved in three states – Michigan, Missouri, and Utah – and rejected in one state – North Dakota.

Michigan

Michigan is now the 10th state in the country to legalize the recreational use of marijuana under certain conditions. Michigan residents approved Proposal 1, allowing for recreational marijuana to be consumed, purchased, or cultivated by those 21 and over. The new law went into effect December 6, 2018, but the commercial system will not be running for another year. The law imposes a 10% tax on marijuana sales and will create a licensure system for dispensaries. The law does not require an employer to permit or accommodate recreational use of marijuana, nor does it prohibit an employer from refusing to hire, discharging, disciplining, or taking any other adverse action because of the violation of a workplace drug policy or working under the influence.

Missouri

In Missouri, voters rejected two of three proposals regarding marijuana, but approved a ballot measure (Amendment 2) to allow for medical marijuana to be sold at a 4% tax. Notably, all three measures would have allowed for medical marijuana, but each measure varied in terms of tax, from 2% to 15%. The 4% tax will be used to sponsor veteran’s health issues.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services will implement the law’s provisions, which will take all of 2019. Medical marijuana is not expected to be available for purchase until January 2020. While the law provides certain protections for patients, medical providers, and caregivers, the law does not permit a private right of action against an employer for wrongful discharge, discrimination, or any similar cause of action based on the employer’s prohibition of the employee being under the influence of marijuana while at work or for disciplining or discharging an employee for working or attempting to work while under the influence.

Utah

Utah voters approved Proposition 2, a medicinal marijuana proposal. Proposition 2, which was opposed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) was altered by legislation – the Utah Medical Cannabis Act (HB 3001) – after the election. On December 3, HB 3001 passed the legislature and was signed by Governor Gary Hebert. The bill stripped certain provisions of Proposition 2: patients who live more than 100 miles from a dispensary may not grow their own marijuana; patients must purchase medical marijuana through a state- or privately-run dispensary (the number of which has been reduced); and dispensaries must employee pharmacists to recommend dosages. In addition, HB 3001 added nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and high-ranking social workers to the list of health care workers that can recommend medical marijuana. HB 3001 is already the subject to two lawsuits, but currently it is scheduled to take effect on July 1, 2019.

Under the new Utah law, a patient cannot be discriminated against in the provision of medical care due to lawful use of medical marijuana, and the state may not discriminate against such users in employment. The new law, however, does not address medical marijuana use in the context of private employment. But employers may need to treat medical marijuana users the same as they treat employees with disabilities under state law, because the underlying conditions qualifying for medical marijuana use also qualify as disabilities under state law.

North Dakota

Voters in North Dakota rejected Measure 3, an initiative to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes.

*          *          *

Employers and health care professionals should be ready to handle issues that arise with the potential conflict between state and federal law in devising compliance, both in terms of reporting and human resources issues. States continue to consider – and pass – legislation to legalize marijuana (both medicinal and recreational), and we are marching toward 50-state legalization. Almost all organizations – and particularly those with multi-state operations – must review and evaluate their current policies with respect to marijuana use by employees and patients.

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.

Cannabis has been legalized in Canada as of October 17, 2018. What does this mean for employers with employees traveling to and from Canada? Can travelers from Canada to the United States with legally purchased cannabis simply drive to a state where recreational or medical use of cannabis is legal? The bottom line: Employers should remind employees that they cannot cross into the United States with Canadian cannabis under any circumstances.

The framework created in Canada did not change laws regarding borders. A traveler who purchases legal cannabis in Canada may not enter the United States with it, regardless of whether the person is traveling to a state that has legalized marijuana. Cannabis remains illegal under federal law and crossing any U.S. – Canada border will result in legal prosecution by the federal government. This applies to any amount and any form of cannabis, including medical marijuana.

The same is true if one were returning to Canada with legally purchased cannabis from Canada. This act is illegal. There is no situation where a receipt can be shown to “prove” the origin. The origin does not matter. The act of taking cannabis across the border is illegal.

Further, for the same reasons, cannabis cannot be brought on international flights even if the flight originated from Canada. It is expected that declaration forms on flights originating from Canada traveling to the U.S. may include questions on cannabis. Given how relatively new the legalization and regulation of cannabis is in Canada, travelers should expect to see and/or hear increased questions about cannabis possession and use, generally, at the borders.

Forget bringing cannabis purchased in Canada into the U.S. Even a single past use of cannabis may lead travelers to unforeseen legal troubles. The Canadian government warns that previous use of cannabis could result in the traveler being denied entry to the destination country, including the U.S. This could be a lifetime ban that may take years to sort for these noncitizens.

Certain other travelers may be inadmissible to the U.S. due to their ties to cannabis. Canadian citizens working in the marijuana industry, for example, may be denied entry to the U.S. if they are traveling to the U.S. for reasons related to that industry. In addition, while Canada intends to pardon citizens with simple marijuana possession convictions, the U.S. does not recognize foreign pardons, and so these individuals also could be deemed inadmissible to enter the U.S.

Beginning July 1, 2018, recreational marijuana can be legally sold, taxed, and consumed in Massachusetts—one of nine states, in addition to Washington, D.C., that now permits recreational marijuana use. Massachusetts already is one of 29 states that allow marijuana use for medicinal purposes (and 17 others permit certain low-THC cannabis products for medical reasons).

Background

Legalization of recreational marijuana started in 2016 with a ballot initiative by Massachusetts voters. The Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act (“Marijuana Act”), which took effect on December 15, 2016, provides that “[t]his chapter shall not require an employer to permit or accommodate conduct otherwise allowed by this chapter in the workplace and shall not affect the authority of employers to enact and enforce workplace policies restricting the consumption of marijuana by employees.” Thus, while the Marijuana Act expressly permits employers to prohibit employees from using or being under the influence of marijuana in the workplace, it does not address whether an employer can regulate employees’ lawful use of marijuana off duty.

How Might a Court Rule if an Employer Banned Off-Duty Recreational Marijuana Use?

Employers may terminate an employee for off-duty and/or off-site recreational marijuana use because Massachusetts, unlike a number of other states, has no statutory protection for employees’ lawful off-duty conduct, such as smoking.

There are, however, other claims an aggrieved applicant or employee might bring absent the off-duty conduct statute protections. In one case, an employee who was terminated by his employer for violation of the company’s non-smoking policy when he tested positive for nicotine brought a case claiming a right to privacy. See Rodrigues v. EG Sys., 639 F. Supp. 2d 131, 133 (D. Mass. 2009).   A federal court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims that the employer violated his right to privacy because the plaintiff made no attempt to keep his smoking private: he testified to smoking outdoors and purchasing cigarettes with coworkers. Id.

In Barbuto v. Advantage Sales and Marketing, LLC, a 2017 decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, a new hire disclosed a prescription for medical marijuana she used for Crohn’s Disease. 78 N.E. 3d 37, 42 (Mass. 2017). HR personnel informed her that her prescribed, off-duty use would be acceptable; however, when she tested positive after working for one day, the company terminated her employment.

The Barbuto court permitted the employee’s reasonable accommodations claim. Specifically, the court held that although marijuana use is still illegal at the federal level, the public policy of Massachusetts prioritizes accommodating workers with disabilities.

Although the use of medical marijuana could be considered a public policy concern under certain circumstances, given that an employee may be discharged for the off-duty conduct of smoking cigarettes, it is unlikely that Massachusetts courts would protect employees who test positive for recreational marijuana use. Unlike medical marijuana use, recreational marijuana use likely does not implicate public policy considerations because the use of medical marijuana has health benefits related to treating illness and disease, whereas the use of recreational marijuana does not.

With respect to privacy arguments akin to those asserted in Rodrigues, courts might distinguish marijuana from cigarettes for a variety of reasons. In Massachusetts, marijuana consumption in public and in vehicles is prohibited, whereas cigarette smokers have greater freedom to smoke outdoors and in vehicles. Additionally, marijuana, unlike cigarettes, is still illegal under federal law.

How Can Massachusetts Employers Manage Employees While Avoiding Legal Risks of Employees Using Recreational Marijuana?

Although neither the law nor the applicable regulations address employee-employer rights in the context of recreational marijuana, and it is too soon for the courts to have weighed in, employers likely have the right to terminate an employee for recreational marijuana consumption, even where that consumption occurs off duty and/or off-site. To minimize any risk that an employee may bring a viable legal claim resulting from the termination of employment or rescission of a conditional offer of employment due to a positive drug test, employers should consider the following:

  1. Employers that continue to enforce zero tolerance policies and either decline to hire or terminate individuals for marijuana use should articulate to employees that the test will screen for marijuana, and clearly define “illegal” drugs as those banned under federal, state, or local law to avoid conflicts regarding its legal status in Massachusetts.
  2. As recreational use becomes more prevalent in Massachusetts, in light of the Marijuana Act, talent pool considerations may favor loosening drug-testing policies, at least for certain positions.
  3. Though Massachusetts law currently permits pre-employment drug screening for any reason (as long as it is non-discriminatory), employers may choose to eliminate standardized testing policies and instead opt to test only upon “reasonable suspicion” that the employee is under the influence at work.
  4. Multistate employers should update employee handbooks with particular emphasis on any changes made to their drug-testing policies and decide whether they plan to standardize testing across the company or enact carve-outs for recreational marijuana states.
  5. Notwithstanding the above, because health care employers in particular face safety issues and high risks associated with patient care, those considerations may weigh in favor of enforcement of zero tolerance and standardized testing policies – particularly with respect to recreational marijuana – in patient-care and other safety-sensitive positions.
  6. Employers in highly regulated industries, such as health care and transportation, should be aware of additional regulations that govern drug testing in their industries.
  7. Drug-testing policies should make clear that on-the-job marijuana consumption or being under the influence of marijuana remains against company policy. Further, employers wishing to prohibit off-duty or off-site recreational consumption should expressly state that such conduct may result in discipline or termination of employment.

This post was written with assistance from John W. Milani, a 2018 Summer Associate at Epstein Becker Green.

Almost ten months into the Trump Administration, the executive and legislative branches have been preoccupied with attempting to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) – but each attempt has thus far proved fruitless.  While the debate rages over the continued viability of the ACA, as we stated in our previous Take 5, employers should remember that obligations to comply with Section 1557 (the non-discrimination provision of the ACA) and the final rule implementing that provision remain.  But there have been developments regarding which characteristics are protected by Section 1557.  In this Take 5, we explore whether Section 1557 continues to cover gender identity and transition services.

Although the health care debate has received the bulk of the media attention, other legal developments also promise to have significant impact on health care employers.  For instance, the  Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) appears to have set its sights on the accommodation of disabled workers in the health care industry, and recent decisions regarding employees’ rights to use medical marijuana may impose new burdens on employers.

These and other developments are discussed in this edition of Take 5:

  1. Will The Affordable Care Act’s Non-Discrimination Regulations Continue to Cover Gender Identity and Transition Services?
  2. Restrictive Covenants – How Effective are Non-Competes and Non-Solicits in the Health Care Industry?
  3. Navigating the Interactive Process:  Best Practices for Complying with the ADA
  4. A Growing Trend In Favor of Medical Marijuana Users in the Employment Context
  5. ERISA Withdrawal Liability: Make Sure to Look Before You Leap Into Mergers and Acquisitions

Read the full Take 5 online or download the PDF.

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.

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 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.

The United States District Court for the District of New Mexico recently dismissed a lawsuit filed by an employee who was fired after testing positive for marijuana despite using medical marijuana as permitted by New Mexico state law.  In finding that the employer did not violate New Mexico law or public policy, the court’s decision mirrors the holdings in similar cases from California, Colorado, Michigan, Montana, Oregon, and Washington holding that employers have no duty to accommodate medical marijuana use by employees.

In the New Mexico case, the employee applied for a position with Tractor Supply Company and disclosed his HIV/AIDS diagnosis during the interview process.  The employee further disclosed that he participated in the New Mexico Cannabis Program, authorized by the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act.  After the employee was hired for the position, the employee underwent a drug test and tested positive for cannabis metabolites.  Tractor Supply Company terminated the employee on the basis of the positive drug test.

Employers—including those in health care—who wish to continue their zero tolerance policy for marijuana use likely are legally insulated in states with statutes that do not expressly require accommodation of medical marijuana use.  However, whether such policies are permissible in states such as Nevada and New York, which have state laws expressly requiring the accommodation of medical marijuana use, is less clear.  Thus, employers should continue to monitor for developments in this area of the law.

For a more in-depth analysis of medical marijuana in the workplace, please see our recent article in EBG’s Take 5 newsletter and our follow-up article in Bloomberg BNA’s Health Law Reporter.

The New Mexico case is Garcia v. Tractor Supply Company (PDF), No. 15-CV-00735 (D.N.M. Jan. 7, 2016).