Written by Christopher A. Parrella, J.D., CHC, CPC, CPCO
A recent federal court ruling may serve as a harbinger of things to come for companies that discriminate against marijuana users
The ruling, issued by a federal court judge in Connecticut, granted summary judgment to a job applicant who claimed she was not hired after testing positive for marijuana on a pre-employment drug test.
Katelin Noffsinger told the potential employer, Bride Brook Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, that she was qualified under the Connecticut Palliative Use of Marijuana Act (PUMA) to use the drug to treat post-traumatic stress disorder that she developed after a car accident.
She claims the company offered her the position contingent on the drug screening. But when the test came back positive for THC, consistent with the use of marijuana, Bride Book rescinded the job offer.
Noffsinger then filed a complaint, alleging, among other things, that Bride Brook violated PUMA’s anti-discrimination provision which states that unless required by federal law or required to obtain funding … no employer may refuse to hire or may discharge, penalize or threaten an employee solely on the basis of such person’s or employee’s status as a qualifying patient.
For its part, Bridge Brook argued that the Federal Drug-Free Workplace Act (DFWA) prevented Noffsinger from being hired because it prohibits federal contractors from allowing employees to use illegal drugs and because marijuana is not legal under federal law, it could rescind its offer.
The company filed a motion to dismiss, which was denied. The case went through discovery and both sides filed for summary judgment.
In his ruling, the judge rejected the defendant’s argument that it would violate the DFWA to hire someone who uses medical marijuana during off hours. Noffsinger said she only used it in the evenings at home. He also disagreed with Bridge Brooks’ argument that the Federal False Claims Act prohibited Noffsinger from being hired because doing so would violate federal law and amount to defrauding the federal government. The judge also rejected Bridge Brooks’ argument that PUMA prohibits discrimination only on the basis of one’s status as an approved medical marijuana patient, but not for their actual use of it, in accordance with the PUMA program. The judge noted that under this interpretation of the statute, employers would be free to fire (or in Noffsinger’s case, refuse to hire) patients who qualified for its use and who actually used medical marijuana – the very purpose for which the patient sought and obtained a qualifying status.
The judge granted Noffsinger’s motion for summary judgement on the claim that Bridge Brook violated PUMA’s anti-discrimination provision. However, he declined to award the plaintiff attorney’s fees or punitive damages on her claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress.
Although specific to Connecticut, given that it is a federal ruling, the decision is likely to be used in similar cases elsewhere and may be indicative of how future courts will rule. While some employers have dropped marijuana from their drug tests, many more have not. And, conflicting laws on the federal and state levels only serve to make it more confusing for employers and employees.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out as more states legalize marijuana, both for medical and recreational use.
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