As a general rule of thumb, employers are not allowed to discriminate against employees with disabilities. Both federal and state laws provide this protection. This means that an employer cannot take an adverse employment action against an employee because of the employee’s disability. Again, this is a “general” rule of thumb: In the cannabis context, things are always a bit different.
Some states have passed legislation protecting medical marijuana users off work marijuana use. Employers in those states cannot terminate an employee or refuse to hire an applicant because of their off-work medical marijuana use. Historically, however, the big problem with these laws is that state and federal courts have readily determined the Controlled Substance Act (CSA) preempts state law, and that employers may terminate medical marijuana patients for off-work use. Recently, for the first time, a federal court sided with an employee who brought a claim against her employer for termination for off-work use of marijuana.
According to the lawsuit filed in Connecticut, Katelin Noffsinger is a registered medical marijuana user. In 2016, Noffsinger applied for a job with Bride Brook Nursing & Rehabilitation (“Bride Brook”). Bride Brook offered her the job contingent on passing a pre-employment drug test. Noffsinger informed her potential employer that she was a medical marijuana patient and likely would not pass the drug test. Noffsinger took the drug test which confirmed the presence of THC. Bride Brook rescinded its job-offer. Noffsinger brought a claim against Bride Brook alleging Bridge Brook had violated the anti-discrimination provision of the Connecticut Palliative use of Marijuana Act (PUMA). Bride Brook attempted to dismiss the case, asserting the claim was preempted by the CSA, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA).
The federal court first addressed the CSA preemption claim. The Court held that the CSA did not prohibit employers from employing marijuana users. Meaning, if state law prohibited employers from discriminating against medical marijuana users, it would control.
The Court next determined that the ADA did not preempt PUMA because the ADA explicitly allows employers to prohibit illegal drug use at the workplace but does not authorize employers to take adverse employment action based on drug use outside of the workplace. Finally, the Court determined the FDCA does not regulate employment and therefore was inapplicable in the current case.
The Court did not rule on the substance of Noffsinger’s claim–meaning it has not determined if Noffsinger was discriminated under PUMA. That decision is still pending a jury trial.
The Noffsinger case is important. It’s the first case of its kind to determine that marijuana’s illegality under federal law does not bar an employment claim based on state law. State courts, such as the Oregon Supreme Court, have expressly held that the CSA preempts state medical marijuana laws—meaning employers in the State of Oregon, for example, may still terminate an employee for off-work marijuana use.
The decision in the Noffsinger case is not binding in other jurisdictions, but it could indicate a significant shift in federal courts’ view on medical marijuana. Perhaps this court’s sound reasoning will influence other federal judges to provide equal protections to medical marijuana patients until marijuana is de- or rescheduled under the CSA.