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 The job offer was later rescinded because she tested positive for cannabis; in the meantime, Plaintiff’s position at Touchpoints was filled, so she could not remain employed there.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.