Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Protects Medicinal Marijuana Users in the Workplace

On July 17, 2017, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued its opinion in Barbuto v. Advantage Sales and Marketing LLC. In it, the Court recognized that employers may not terminate employees because they utilize medical marijuana simply because that use is unlawful under Federal law. Instead, these employers must engage in an interactive process with these employees to determine whether it is reasonable to provide requested accommodations, including an exception to the employer’s policy prohibiting use of marijuana.

Case Summary

Cristina Barbuto accepted a job offer from Advantage Sales in late summer of 2014. After accepting the offer, Barbuto was subjected to a mandatory drug test. Barbuto told her employer that she would test positive for marijuana as she utilizes it to treat her Crohn’s disease. This made her a qualifying patient under the Medical Marijuana Act. Barbuto noted that she did not use marijuana daily and would not consume it before work or at work. Barbuto used marijuana in small quantities at her home, usually in the evening, two to three times per week. Barbuto found that marijuana was the only medicine that allowed her to maintain a healthy weight. Barbuto’s supervisor told her that her use of medical marijuana “should not be a problem,” later telling her via telephone that her use of marijuana would not be an issue.

On September 5, 2014, Barbuto submitted a urine sample for the mandatory drug test. On September 11, she went to a training program where she was given a uniform and work schedule. She completed her first day of work on September 12. That evening, Barbuto’s HR representative terminated Barbuto for testing positive for marijuana, stating that she did not care if Barbuto used marijuana to treat her medical condition because “we follow federal law, not state law.” Shortly thereafter, Barbuto brought claims alleging (1) disability discrimination, (2) invasion of privacy, (3) violation of Massachusetts public policy, and (4) violation of the Medical Marijuana Act. The Superior Court judge dismissed all claims except for the invasion of privacy claim. Plaintiff appealed. SJC’s Opinion According to the SJC, Barbuto had adequately alleged that she was entitled to protections of state disability law because she was capable of performing her essential job functions with an accommodation from her employer.

According to the SJC, it was at least facially reasonable for Barbuto’s employer to waive its rule prohibiting the use of medical marijuana relative to Barbuto’s employment, especially in light of Barbuto’s specific circumstances in which medical marijuana was the most effective medication for her debilitating condition and where other available medications would be less effective. Further, even if accommodating medical marijuana was unreasonable, employers still may violate disability discrimination laws if they terminate effected employees before engaged in an interactive process to determine if alternative medications exist.

The SJC dispensed with the employer’s argument that such an accommodation was never reasonable because marijuana use was illegal of Federal law, noting that this exposes the employee, not the employer, to criminal penalties.

For these reasons, the SJC held that the trial court should not have dismissed Barbuto’s disability discrimination claim, and sent that claim back for the parties to conduct discovery. The SJC’s opinion provides that an employer may still defeat this type of claim by establishing that deviating from its policy banning marijuana use would create an undue hardship. For instance, an employer could defeat this claim if continued use of medical marijuana would impair the employee’s performance, pose a safety risk, violate the employer’s contractual or statutory obligations, or jeopardize its ability to perform its business.

Employer Takeaways

Employers face considerable risk if they terminate employees who use medical marijuana simply because that use is illegal under Federal law. Instead, employers must engage in an interactive process with these employees to identify the nature of their limitation, the nature of the requested accommodation, and the impact the accommodation would have on their business operations. Employers should remind their supervisory employees not to react to accommodation requests with comments like “that should not be a problem.” Doing that makes it incredibly difficult for employers to later claim that the requested accommodation presents an undue hardship. Please let us know if you have any questions about this or any other employment-related issue.

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