Employee's medical marijuana use is not covered by disability laws

An employer is not required to allow employees to use medical marijuana as a reasonable accommodation under California’s Fair Employment Housing Act (FEHA). The California Supreme Court held that it is not a violation of California law for an employer to terminate an employee who tests positive for marijuana, even though the employee was prescribed the marijuana for medical purposes under California’ Compassionate Use Act of 1996.

The case, Ross v. Ragingwire Telecommunications, Inc., addressed the conflict between California's Compassionate Use Act, (which gives a person who uses marijuana for medical purposes on a physician’s recommendation a defense to certain state criminal charges and permission to possess the drug) and Federal law (which prohibits the drug’s possession, even by medical users). Ragingwire terminated plaintiff’s employment based on a positive test for marijuana even through the plaintiff provided a doctor’s note explaining that he was prescribed marijuana to alleviate back pains.

The Supreme Court explained that the employer's decision to terminate plaintiff was not illegal:

Nothing in the text or history of the Compassionate Use Act suggests the voters intended the measure to address the respective rights and duties of employers and employees. Under California law, an employer may require preemployment drug tests and take illegal drug use into consideration in making employment decisions. (Loder v. City of Glendale (1997) 14 Cal.4th 846, 882-883.)

Plaintiff’s position might have merit if the Compassionate Use Act gave marijuana the same status as any legal prescription drug. But the act’s effect is not so broad. No state law could completely legalize marijuana for medical purposes because the drug remains illegal under federal law (21 U.S.C. §§ 812, 844(a)), even for medical users (see Gonzales v. Raich, supra, 545 U.S. 1, 26-29; United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative, supra, 532 U.S. 483, 491-495). Instead of attempting the impossible, as we shall explain, California’s voters merely exempted medical users and their primary caregivers from criminal liability under two specifically designated state statutes. Nothing in the text or history of the Compassionate Use Act suggests the voters intended the measure to address the respective rights and obligations of employers and employees.

The Court also provided that a reasonable accommodation, as required under California’s FEHA, does not include an employer’s permission to use illegal drugs:

The FEHA does not require employers to accommodate the use of illegal drugs. The point is perhaps too obvious to have generated appellate litigation, but we recognized it implicitly in Loder v. City of Glendale, supra, 14 Cal.4th 846 (Loder). Among the questions before us in Loder was whether an employer could require prospective employees to undergo testing for illegal drugs and alcohol, and whether the employer could have access to the test results, without violating California’s Confidentiality of Medical Information Act (Civ. Code, § 56 et seq.). We determined that an employer could lawfully do both. In reaching this conclusion, we relied on a regulation adopted under the authority of the FEHA (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 2, § 7294.0, subd. (d); see Gov. Code, § 12935, subd. (a)) that permits an employer to condition an offer of employment on the results of a medical examination. (Loder, at p. 865; see also id. at pp. 861-862.) We held that such an examination may include drug testing and, in so holding, necessarily recognized that employers may deny employment to persons who test positive for illegal drugs. The employer, we explained, was “seeking information that [was] relevant to its hiring decision and that it legitimately may ascertain.” (Id. at p. 883, fn. 15.) We determined the employer’s interest was legitimate “[i]n light of the well-documented problems that are associated with the abuse of drugs and alcohol by employees — increased absenteeism, diminished productivity, greater health costs, increased safety problems and potential liability to third parties, and more frequent turnover . . . .” (Id. at p. 882, fn. omitted.) We also noted that the plaintiff in that case had “cite[d] no authority indicating that an employer may not reject a job applicant if it lawfully discovers that the applicant currently is using illegal drugs or engaging in excessive consumption of alcohol.” (Id. at p. 883, fn. 15.) The employer’s legitimate concern about the use of illegal drugs also led us in Loder to reject the claim that preemployment drug testing violated job applicants’ state constitutional right to privacy. (Id. at pp. 887-898; see Cal. Const., art. I, § 1.)

(footnote omitted).

The plaintiff also alleged a cause of action for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. Generally, at-will employees can terminate or be terminated from their job at any time, but an employer cannot terminate an employee for reasons that violate a fundamental public policy of the state. The Court rejected plaintiff’s position that there was a fundamental public policy that permitted him to use medical marijuana and be under its influence while at work. The Court stated, “Nothing in the [Compassionate Use Act’s] text or history indicates the voters intended to articulate any policy concerning marijuana in the employment context, let alone a fundamental public policy requiring employers to accommodate marijuana use by employees."

A further clarification that medical marijuana use is not protected under disability laws came in 2012 from a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that held individuals seeking to stop cities from closing medical marijuana dispensaries under Title II of the ADA were not protected by under the ADA.  The case is James v. City of Costa Mesa, which held that the ADA does not protect against discrimination on the basis of marijuana use, even though permitted under certain circumstances under California law, marijuana use is not authorized by federal law, and therefore is not protected under the ADA. It is therefore likely that a court would also recognize that a patron does not have a right under Title III of the ADA, which applies to public accommodations, to use medical marijuana in public establishments, like restaurants.

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