Massachusetts Supreme Court Allows Disability Discrimination Claim For Use of Medical Marijuana

In Cristina Barbuto v. Advantage Sales & Marketing LLC and Joanne Meredith Villaruz, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Case No. SJC-12226, the Massachusetts Supreme Court held on July 17, 2017, that an employee in Massachusetts can bring a claim of disability discrimination after being fired for using medical marijuana.

Medical marijuana was approved by Massachusetts voters in 2012, and the law provides that individuals who qualify for the use of medical marijuana cannot be punished for using it.  Barbuto suffers from Crohn’s disease and was using medical marijuana two to three times per week, although never during the work day, when she began working for Advantage Sales in 2014. After failing a mandatory drug test, Barbuto was terminated by Advantage Sales on the basis that Advantage follows federal law and not state law, and of course the use of marijuana is illegal under federal law.

In upholding Barbuto’s right to bring a disability discrimination claim under State law, the Massachusetts’ high court stated that although an employee’s possession of medical marijuana may violate federal law, that fact does not make it a per se unreasonable accommodation. The court further stated that even if allowing the use of medical marijuana was unreasonable, Advantage should have still engaged in the interactive process with Barbuto to determine if there was another potential, reasonable accommodation, such as using another drug that did not violate the company’s drug policy. Advantage will have the opportunity to demonstrate the unreasonableness of medical marijuana as an accommodation on remand.

While the court allowed Barbuto’s disability claim to stand, it did state that employers do not have to tolerate the use of medical marijuana during work time, nor allow medical marijuana for individuals in safety-sensitive jobs or those covered by the federal drug-free workplace laws. The court additionally stated that there is no implied statutory cause of action for individuals alleging a violation of the state’s medical marijuana law.

As reported in prior postings, Ohio’s medical marijuana law is much more protective of employers than the law passed in Massachusetts, but it is of course difficult to prevent determined courts from finding ways around what would otherwise be clear provisions of the law.

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