Q. Now that medical marijuana is legal in New Jersey, does the Law Against Discrimination require employers to provide an accommodation for medical marijuana use?
A. While New Jersey employers are not required to accommodate the use of medical marijuana in the workplace, they may be required to accommodate an employee’s off-duty use of medical marijuana outside of the workplace, according to a recent decision. On March 27, 2019, the New Jersey Appellate Division reversed a lower court’s ruling that state law does not provide employment protections for medical marijuana users. Although the court affirmed that employers are not required to accommodate an employee’s use of medical marijuana in the workplace, the court found that failure to accommodate off-duty use of medical marijuana outside the workplace could give rise to liability under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD).
In Wild v. Carriage Funeral Holdings, Inc., the plaintiff, a funeral director, alleged that he was discriminated against when the employer fired him for using medical marijuana, despite the fact that he had a prescription to use it to treat pain caused by cancer. In 2016, the plaintiff was injured in a car accident while on the job, resulting in a trip to the emergency room. At the hospital, he informed the treating staff that he had a license to use medical marijuana. However, the physician in charge did not request a drug test based on an assessment that the plaintiff was not impaired at the time of the accident.
Despite the doctor’s assessment, the employer later requested that the plaintiff take a drug test, to which the plaintiff reluctantly agreed. After he failed the test, the plaintiff was terminated. The employer first told the plaintiff that he was being terminated because the test revealed that he had drugs in his system. However, the employer later sent a letter stating that the plaintiff was terminated not because of his use of medical marijuana, but rather because he failed to disclose his use of a medication which might affect his ability to safely perform his job duties, as required by the employer’s policy.
The plaintiff then filed suit, alleging that the employer violated the NJLAD by terminating his employment based on a positive drug test, given that he was prescribed medical marijuana by his doctor, as permitted by the New Jersey Compassionate Use of Medical Marijuana Act (CUMMA). In granting the employer’s motion to dismiss, the trial judge determined that CUMMA carries no employment-related protections for licensed users of medical marijuana. The lower court explained that the termination was justified based on a positive drug test and a violation of the employer’s drug use policy.
Reversing the lower court’s decision, the Appellate Division first rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the disability discrimination protections under CUMMA and the NJLAD were in conflict, pointing to the language in CUMMA providing that “[n]othing in this act shall be construed to require . . . an employer to accommodate the medical use of marijuana in any workplace.” As the court explained, “[t]hese words are unambiguous; they require no interpretation and permit no deviation.” The court emphasized that CUMMA “neither created new employment rights nor destroyed existing employment rights” that may be available to employees under other statutes like the NJLAD.
Next, the Court noted that the plaintiff did not claim that the employer failed to accommodate his use of medical marijuana in the workplace, but rather, that the employer failed to accommodate his off-duty use of medical marijuana. As the court explained, even if CUMMA does not obligate employers to provide a reasonable accommodation for medical marijuana use in the workplace, such an obligation may arise under the NJLAD. Given that the plaintiff did not request an accommodation to use medical marijuana in the workplace, the Appellate Division concluded that his NJLAD claim should not have been dismissed. The Appellate Division reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings on the question of whether an employee’s off-duty use of medical marijuana should have been accommodated under the facts presented.
The Appellate Division’s decision in Wild v. Carriage Funeral Holdings, Inc. indicates that, while CUMMA does not require employers to accommodate medical marijuana use in the workplace, the failure to accommodate a medical marijuana user, at least when the use is outside of the workplace and during non-work hours, could lead to liability under the NJLAD.
At the very least, employers should exercise caution when taking an adverse employment action against an employee who has a prescription for medical marijuana following a positive test. Because drug tests can detect marijuana in a person’s body for some period of time after it is used, a positive test may reveal an employee’s use of marijuana during non-working hours. This raises the possibility that, like in Wild, an employee who is not impaired at the time of a workplace accident could nevertheless test positive for marijuana use afterwards, based on use that occurred outside the workplace. Given that the NJLAD may require an accommodation for an employee’s off-duty use of medical marijuana, employers should consult with legal counsel prior to disciplining or terminating an employee who tests positive for marijuana.
Our Cannabis Practice provides advice on issues related to applicable state law. Cannabis remains an illegal controlled substance under federal law.