Posted on Thursday, March 12th, 2020.
BREAKING NEWS: SUPREME COURT SUMMARILY AFFIRMS DECISION ALLOWING MEDICAL MARIJUANA USER TO PROCEED ON HIS WORKPLACE DISCRIMINATION CLAIM
On March 10, 2020, in a brief decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court summarily affirmed the decision of the Superior Court, Appellate Division, in Justin Wild v. Carriage Funeral Holdings, Inc.
Wild involved a funeral director who had been diagnosed with cancer and prescribed marijuana under New Jersey’s Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act. His employer allegedly learned of the employee’s use of medical marijuana after an automobile accident had injured the employee. (The employee alleged that marijuana played no role in the accident). The employee was terminated shortly thereafter. The employee claimed he was first told that his employer had been unable to “handle” his marijuana use and that his employment was being terminated “because they found drugs in [his] system.” The employee alleged that no positive drug test result had ever been produced or reported to his employer. The employee alleged that he was later told that he had been terminated allegedly because he failed to disclose his use of medication that might adversely affect his ability to perform his job duties.
The employee then sued his employer for disability discrimination under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. The defendants moved to dismiss the suit based on N.J.S.A. 24:6I-14, which states that nothing in the Compassionate Use Act would “require… an employer to accommodate the medical use of marijuana in any workplace.” Although the trial court agreed with the defendants, the Appellate Division reversed. The allegations of the employee’s complaint did not suggest that he had been using marijuana for medical purposes in the workplace. The employee instead alleged that his marijuana use was entirely off duty. The employee was therefore permitted to argue that his termination based on his alleged purely off duty use of marijuana constituted an act of disability discrimination. And this was sufficient to allow the employee’s claim to proceed.
The Supreme Court wrote a very brief decision adopting the Appellate Division ruling. But the Supreme Court warned that the case is merely at the initial pleading stage, and all that had been decided that the plaintiff’s Law Against Discrimination complaint would survive a motion to dismiss. The Supreme Court also warned that the (now repealed) prohibition against accommodating the use of marijuana in the workplace, and the prohibition against using marijuana while driving vehicles or operating machinery, would be relevant to the final outcome of the lawsuit, rejecting the Appellate Division’s suggestion to the contrary. The Supreme Court thus declined “to adopt the Appellate Division’s view that ‘the Compassionate Use Act intended to cause no impact on existing employment rights.’ ”
During oral argument, the Justices seemed divided over the meaning of the prohibition against accommodating the use of marijuana in the workplace. Some Justices seemed to think that this prohibition barred the accommodation of the actual use of marijuana while at work. Other Justices suggested that the clause prohibited accommodations for marijuana use in the workplace, regardless where the marijuana was actually used. However, the Court’s opinion does not resolve this issue.
The prohibition against accommodating the use of marijuana in the workplace was repealed last year when the Jack Honig Compassionate Use Medical Cannabis Act was enacted. Wild is therefore most relevant to cases that arose before the Honig Act became law. Nonetheless, the Wild decision suggests that the Supreme Court is not yet prepared to treat medical marijuana as the equivalent of traditional prescription medication.