Tuesday, July 18, 2017
Massachusetts top court issues major ruling allowing medical marijuana user to pursue lawsuit against employer after her termination
As reported in this Boston Globe piece, headlined "Ruling means Mass. companies can’t fire workers for medical marijuana," the top court in Massachusetts issued a significant employment law ruling yesterday on behalf of a medical marijuana patient. Here are the basics from the press report:
Massachusetts companies cannot fire employees who have a prescription for medical marijuana simply because they use the drug, the state’s highest court ruled Monday, rejecting employers’ arguments that they could summarily enforce strict no-drug policies against such patients.
Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants said a California sales and marketing firm discriminated against an employee of its Massachusetts operation who uses marijuana to treat Crohn’s disease when it fired her for flunking a drug test.
In Massachusetts, Gants wrote, “the use and possession of medically prescribed marijuana by a qualifying patient is as lawful as the use and possession of any other prescribed medication.” Therefore, he said, employers can’t use blanket anti-marijuana policies to dismiss workers whose doctors have prescribed the drug to treat their illnesses.
Instead, antidiscrimination laws require companies to attempt to negotiate a mutually acceptable arrangement with each medical marijuana patient they employ, such as exploring alternative medications or allowing use of the drug only outside of work hours. The ruling overturned a lower court’s dismissal of a lawsuit against brought in 2015 by Cristina Barbuto of Brewster, who was fired by Advantage Sales and Marketing after just one day on the job because she tested positive for marijuana.
Barbuto said she told the company during interviews that she uses cannabis several nights a week — not before or during work hours — to treat her Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory disorder that affects the digestive tract and can inhibit appetites. She said the local hiring manager told her it would not be a problem, and that she was blindsided by her dismissal....
Advocates called the ruling long overdue, and said they expected that other medical marijuana patients who had been fired over their use of the drug would soon contest their dismissals. “We are thrilled that the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has ruled in favor of compassion for people that use medical marijuana for a range of debilitating conditions,” the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, which sponsored the state’s successful 2012 medical marijuana ballot initiative, said in a prepared statement.
A business group that interceded in the case, however, said the ruling would especially hurt small companies that don’t have the resources or expertise to negotiate accommodations for marijuana patients. “This is opening small business owners up to a ton of litigation,” said Karen Harned, the executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business Small Business Legal Center, which filed a brief in support of Advantage. “It’s making their lives harder because they can no longer have a clear drug-free-workplace policy.”
The decision doesn’t mean employers can never fire a patient for using marijuana medically; firms that contract with the federal government, for example, or where workers operate heavy machinery, could argue that accommodating their employees’ use of the drug constitutes an “undue hardship.” But the ruling puts the burden on employers to prove they cannot accommodate medical marijuana patients because their cannabis use impairs their ability to do required work, endangers public safety, or otherwise demonstrably endangers the business, Gants wrote.
“Employers can still prevail,” said Chris Feudo, an attorney at Foley Hoag who represents companies in employment disputes. “Employees aren’t entitled to the accommodation they want; they’re entitled to a reasonable accommodation — and sometimes, there isn’t one.” Still, Feudo said, the ruling will have “really wide implications.”
The full ruling in Barbuto v. Advantage Sales and Marketing, LLC, No. SJC 12226 (Mass. July 17, 2017), is available at this link. And it gets started this way:
In 2012, Massachusetts voters approved the initiative petition entitled, "An Act for the humanitarian medical use of marijuana," St. 2012, c. 369 (medical marijuana act or act), whose stated purpose is "that there should be no punishment under state law for qualifying patients . . . for the medical use of marijuana." Id. at § 1. The issue on appeal is whether a qualifying patient who has been terminated from her employment because she tested positive for marijuana as a result of her lawful medical use of marijuana has a civil remedy against her employer. We conclude that the plaintiff may seek a remedy through claims of handicap discrimination in violation of G. L. c. 151B, and therefore reverse the dismissal of the plaintiff's discrimination claims. We also conclude that there is no implied statutory private cause of action under the medical marijuana act and that the plaintiff has failed to state a claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy, and therefore affirm the dismissal of those claims.