Why it matters

Ruling in a closely watched case, a federal court in Connecticut held that the refusal to hire a medical marijuana user because she tested positive on a pre-employment drug test violated state law. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, Katelin Noffsinger took one capsule of a synthetic form of cannabis each night as prescribed. During the application process at a nursing facility, Noffsinger shared her medical marijuana registration. When her drug test returned positive for marijuana, her offer of employment was rescinded. Noffsinger sued under the Connecticut Palliative Use of Marijuana Act, which permits the use of medical marijuana for qualifying patients and includes a provision prohibiting employment discrimination. Ruling on the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment, the court found the employer’s arguments based on the federal Drug-Free Workplace Act and False Claims Act unpersuasive. Nor was the court impressed with the employer’s contention that it did not discriminate against the plaintiff based on her status as a medical marijuana user, but rather that it rescinded the offer of employment based on her positive test result. The court did dismiss the plaintiff’s claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress as well as an award of attorneys’ fees or punitive damages. While not all states that permit marijuana use allow private rights of action or feature employment discrimination protections as Connecticut does, the decision demonstrates the continuing trend of favoring employees when courts consider the intersection of employment and state laws permitting the medical use of marijuana.

Detailed discussion

In 2012, Connecticut enacted the Palliative Use of Marijuana Act (PUMA). The statute permits the use of medical marijuana for qualifying patients with certain debilitating medical conditions. It also includes a provision that explicitly prohibits discrimination against qualifying patients and primary caregivers by schools, landlords and employers.

Katelin Noffsinger was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 2012, and in 2015 her doctors recommended medical marijuana as a treatment. After receiving her registration certificate pursuant to the law, Noffsinger began taking one capsule of a synthetic form of cannabis each night as prescribed.

A recreational therapist, Noffsinger was recruited by Bride Brook, a nursing facility in Niantic, CT. The administrator of the facility offered her a position, and Noffsinger accepted. At a meeting to complete paperwork, Noffsinger showed her registration certificate and explained that she took her medication at night before bed and was therefore never impaired during the workday.

The administrator continued to process her paperwork, and Noffsinger provided a sample for a drug test. When the test returned a positive result, the administrator rescinded the offer.

Noffsinger filed suit alleging a violation of PUMA’s antidiscrimination provision as well as negligent infliction of emotional distress. U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Alker Meyer denied the employer’s motion to dismiss the suit last year, ruling that the federal Controlled Substances Act did not pre-empt the action.

The parties then filed cross-motions for summary judgment. Again siding with the plaintiff, the court held that she was entitled to judgment as a matter of law on her claim of employment discrimination under PUMA.

Relying on an exemption in the statute if discrimination is “required by federal law or required to obtain federal funding,” the employer argued that both the federal Drug-Free Workplace Act (DFWA) and False Claims Act (FCA) barred it from hiring Noffsinger. According to the nursing facility, the DFWA requires federal contractors to make a “good faith effort” to maintain a drug-free workplace by taking certain measures, such as publishing a statement regarding use of illegal drugs in the workplace and establishing a drug-free awareness program.

“I do not agree that the DFWA required defendant to rescind plaintiff’s job offer,” Judge Meyer wrote. “The DFWA does not require drug testing. Nor does the DFWA prohibit federal contractors from employing someone who uses illegal drugs outside of the workplace, much less an employee who uses medical marijuana outside the workplace in accordance with a program approved by state law.”

That the defendant elected to utilize a zero-tolerance drug testing policy in order to maintain a drug-free work environment does not mean that the policy was actually “required by federal law or required to obtain federal funding,” the court added.

Further, employing someone who uses medical marijuana in violation of federal law does not amount to defrauding the federal government in contravention of the FCA, the court said.

Judge Meyer also rebuffed the employer’s contention that PUMA prohibited discrimination only on the basis of an individual’s status as an approved medical marijuana patient but not on account of that person’s use of medical marijuana in accordance with PUMA.

“Both the language and purpose of the statute make clear that it protects employees from discrimination based on their use of medical marijuana pursuant to their qualifying status under PUMA,” the court wrote. “Under defendant’s restrictive interpretation of the statute, employers would be free to fire status-qualifying patients based on their actual use of medical marijuana—the very purpose for which a patient has sought and obtained a qualifying status. That makes no sense and would render the statute’s protection against PUMA-based discrimination a nullity, because there would be no reason for a patient to seek PUMA status if not to use medical marijuana as permitted under PUMA.”

Finding no genuine fact issues in dispute about why the plaintiff’s job offer was rescinded and no legitimate dispute that the defendant’s rescission of the offer was contrary to the plaintiff’s right not to be subject to discrimination because of her status as a qualifying patient under PUMA, the court granted summary judgment in favor of Noffsinger on her statutory claim.

However, Judge Meyer granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment on the plaintiff’s request for punitive damages and attorneys’ fees. The Connecticut Supreme Court has held that absent a clear statutory provision granting attorneys’ fees or punitive damages, courts may not grant such awards.

“In light of the fact that PUMA does not expressly provide for attorneys’ fees or punitive damages and in the absence of any other evidence that the Connecticut legislature intended to provide such a remedy, I decline to imply these remedies under the statute,” the court said.

Noffsinger’s claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress was also dismissed, as the record did not show that the defendant engaged “in any unreasonable conduct in the manner that it communicated with plaintiff,” the court wrote.

To read the opinion in Noffsinger v. SSC Niantic Operating Co., click here.