Tag Archives: medical cannabis

Supreme Court of NJ Affirms Employee May State A Claim for Reasonable Accommodation for Medical Cannabis Use

medical marijuana

You may recall, in 2019, this blog post reported New Jersey’s Appellate Division joined courts that found an employee may be able to state a disability discrimination claim against an employer who takes an adverse employment action due to the employee’s use of medical cannabis.  That case, Wild v. Carriage Funeral Holdings, Inc., was one in a spate of recent decisions as courts in New Jersey and other states that allow medical use of cannabis have grappled with reconciling laws protecting employees from disability discrimination, employers’ rights to maintain workplaces free of drug use, and federal statutes outlawing cannabis use for any reason. Early decisions in these cases came down in favor of employers, permitting employers to discipline, terminate, or refuse to hire employees who use medical cannabis, even without evidence of use or impairment in the workplace.

New Jersey’s Appellate Division’s Wild ruling changed course when it held an employee may state a disability discrimination claim for failure to accommodate against an employer who takes an adverse employment action due to the employee’s use of medical cannabis.  Now, on March 10, 2020, the Supreme Court of New Jersey affirmed the decision, ruling an employer can potentially be liable under New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”) for failing to accommodate an employee’s use of medical cannabis outside of the workplace.

What Happened?  In 2015, the employee, a funeral director, was prescribed and used medical cannabis as authorized by New Jersey’s Compassionate Use Act. In 2016, the employee was in an auto accident while working. The employee advised hospital staff he was authorized to use medical cannabis. The treating doctor responded that “it was clear [the employee] was not under the influence of cannabis [and, thus, his cannabis use was not a cause of the accident], and therefore no blood tests were required.”

While the employee recuperated, the employer advised that a blood test was required before the employee could return to work. The employee went to a facility to take a urine and breathalyzer test; however, the results were not provided to the employer and were not part of the case record.

The employee eventually returned to work, but, his supervisor advised him that his employment was “being terminated because they found drugs in your system”, though no test results had been provided to the employer. In a subsequent letter, the company told the employee it had terminated him not because of his drug use, but because he failed to disclose his use of medication contrary to company policy. The employee brought an action alleging he had been a victim of disability discrimination.

What did the Courts decide?  The trial court dismissed the employee’s claims, finding that New Jersey’s Compassionate Use Act “does not contain employment-related protections for licensed users of medical cannabis.” The employee appealed.

On appeal, a three-judge panel of New Jersey’s Appellate Division reversed the dismissal. The Appellate Division cannabis found that the LAD might require such an accommodation. Although the Compassionate Use Act does not make illegal an employer’s adverse action against an employee for medical cannabis use, by the same token, the Appellate Division stated it does not immunize an employer’s conduct that might otherwise have been a violation of the LAD.  In affirming the decision, the Supreme Court held an employee may state a failure to accommodate claim under the LAD against an employer who takes an adverse action against the employee for use of cannabis outside of work when that use is otherwise compliant with the Compassionate Use Act.

What do employers need to know?  It is important to understand neither the Appellate Division nor the Supreme Court ruled this employee was a victim of disability discrimination. In fact, the Appellate Division expressly recognized that the case was at the earliest stages, and the employer had pled potentially valid defenses.  The Court ruled only that the case could not be dismissed on its face.

New Jersey employers need to be mindful that they no longer have a free pass to take adverse employment actions against employees and candidates solely because they use medical cannabis outside of the workplace.  It is important to note, the courts in New Jersey have not suggested an employer must accommodate impairment due to medical cannabis use, so employers should remain vigilant about addressing employee impairment issues.  The law as to when an accommodation is reasonable is still developing.  For instance, a requested accommodation that may make an employer ineligible to bid on certain projects or that conflicts with established safety laws and regulations will be subject to greater scrutiny than a requested accommodation that does not impose added burdens on the employer.

In other words, stay tuned, because we have certainly not heard the last word on this topic.

Questions? Let me know.

 

Medical Cannabis Goes to Work

marijuana for medicinal purpose

In the latest salvo in an evolving legal issue, a federal court in Arizona ruled against Walmart in a recent lawsuit for terminating an employee who possessed a valid medical marijuana card after a drug test of the worker came back positive.  On the issue of cannabis use by employees, employers are having increasing difficulty reconciling their duty to make reasonable accommodations for employees suffering from disabilities with their drug screening policies.  Employers can and should take action to prevent impairment at work.   But how should an employer in a state where medical cannabis is legal handle an employee who tests positive in a drug screen but produces a valid authorization for use of medical cannabis?  To date, with certain exceptions, most courts have permitted an employer to refuse to hire a candidate or to enforce discipline against an employee who tests positive for cannabis, despite a valid authorization to use it for medical purposes. However, employees and others are challenging that norm regularly on the state and federal level.  Stay tuned.

Savvy employer takeaways: Employers who take action against a candidate or employee based on a positive result for cannabis when the employee has a valid medical authorization and no evidence of impairment should be prepared for a fight.  Employees and their lawyers are looking for these cases in many states to try to change the law. Employers need to decide if screening out medical cannabis users is worth the risk of a potentially expensive court battle.  

Questions? Let me know.

What Employers Need To Know: New Jersey’s Appellate Division Issues Historic Ruling On Medical Marijuana Users’ Rights in the Workplace

Marijuana Medical PrescriptionEver since the use of properly prescribed medical marijuana became legal in New Jersey, Courts have grappled with reconciling state and federal laws protecting employees from disability discrimination, and employers’ rights to maintain workplaces free of drug use. In simple terms, New Jersey law permits the use of medical marijuana, which is illegal under federal law. With limited exceptions, the decisions in these cases have come down in favor of employers’ right to enforce workplace drug rules. Generally, courts have permitted employers to discipline, terminate, or refuse to hire employees who use medical marijuana, even if there is no evidence of use or impairment in the workplace.

This week, New Jersey’s Appellate Division joined the minority of courts that have found an employee may be able to state a disability discrimination claim against an employer who takes an adverse employment action due to the employee’s use of medical marijuana.

What Happened?

In 2015, the employee, a funeral director, was diagnosed with cancer and was prescribed and used medical marijuana as authorized by New Jersey’s Compassionate Use Act as part of his treatment. In 2016, the employee was in an auto accident while working and he was taken by ambulance to a hospital. The employee advised hospital staff he was authorized to use medical marijuana. The treating doctor responded that “it was clear [the employee] was not under the influence of marijuana [and, thus, his marijuana use was not a cause of the accident], and therefore no blood tests were required.”

While the employee recuperated, his father took his medical prescription and marijuana license to his son’s supervisor and explained what had happened and why the hospital had not given a drug test. Later that day, the employer called and spoke to the employee’s father to advise that a blood test was required before the employee could return to work.

Later that evening, the employee went to a facility to take a urine and breathalyzer test; however, the results of those tests were not provided to the employer and were not part of the case record.

The next day, the employee returned to the funeral home, not as an employee, but because a close friend’s family member had died. While there, he and his supervisor spoke briefly about his job status. His supervisor said he had not heard from “corporate” but did not see how it would be a problem since the employee had a prescription for his marijuana use. The employee told the supervisor, “I only take it when I am home, not at work because I don’t want to jeopardize my license for what I have worked so hard for.”

The employee eventually returned to work, but, shortly after his return, his supervisor advised him that “corporate” was unable to “handle” his marijuana use and that his employment was “being terminated because they found drugs in your system”, though no test had actually been provided to the employer. In a subsequent letter, the company told the employee it had terminated him not because of his drug use, but because he failed to disclose his use of medication that might adversely affect his ability to perform his job duties. According to a company policy, “employees must advise their immediate supervisor if they are taking any medication that may adversely affect their ability to perform assigned duties safely.”

The employee brought an action alleging he had been a victim of disability discrimination.

What did the Courts decide?

The trial court dismissed the employee’s claims, finding that New Jersey’s Compassionate Use Act “does not contain employment-related protections for licensed users of medical marijuana.” The employee appealed.

On appeal, a three-judge panel of New Jersey’s Appellate Division reversed the dismissal in a unanimous decision. The Appellate Division acknowledged that the Compassionate Use Act unambiguously states it does not “require . . . an employer to accommodate the medical use of marijuana in any workplace.” Nevertheless, the appellate panel found that the New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination might require such an accommodation. Although the Compassionate Use Act does not make illegal an employer’s adverse action against an employee for medical marijuana use, by the same token, the Appellate Division stated it does not immunize an employer’s conduct that might otherwise have been a violation of the Law Against Discrimination. For this reason, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s dismissal and permitted the case to proceed.

What do employers need to know?

At the outset, it is important to understand that the Appellate Division did not rule that this employee had been a victim of disability discrimination. In fact, the Court expressly recognized that the case was at the earliest stages, and the employer had pled potentially valid defenses.  The Court ruled only that the case could not be dismissed on its face.

Although this precedent is now binding on state trial courts in New Jersey, it is far from settled law, and may well be subject to an appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court. However, New Jersey employers need to be mindful that they no longer have a free pass to take adverse employment actions against employees and candidates solely because they use medical marijuana; those affected by such decisions will be emboldened by this new case, and their lawyers will be confident that a lawsuit challenging the adverse actions is more likely to survive a motion to dismiss at the beginning of the case. As the law in New Jersey now stands, employers are not required to accommodate medical marijuana use, but there is now an increased risk if they refuse. Additionally, various bills have been proposed and are being considered by the New Jersey legislature, which, if adopted, may expand employee rights in this area of the law.

In other words, stay tuned, because we have certainly not heard the last word on this topic. With that said, employers remain free to take adverse action if an employee shows any sign of impairment from use of medical marijuana, or, for that matter, any other drug, legal or not.

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If you have any questions about this legal alert or if you run across a related issue in your workplace, please feel free to contact Adam Gersh or any other member of Flaster Greenberg’s Labor & Employment Department.

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