Question of Whether Employers Can Fire Employees for Lawful Marijuana Use to Go Before Colorado Supreme Court
An employee who relied on medical marijuana for debilitating pain lost his job after failing a drug test, and his case has raised the difficult question of whether moves towards marijuana decriminalization have changed the legal standards in cases of termination for marijuana use. The employee alleged that the employer violated a statute prohibiting termination for "lawful activity" outside of work, but the Colorado Court of Appeals disagreed in Coats v. DISH Network, L.L.C., 303 P.3d 147 (Col. App. 2013). The state supreme court has agreed to hear the employee's appeal. The question involves both state and federal law, especially now that marijuana is at least partly legal in many states, but still illegal under federal law.
The plaintiff worked as a telephone operator for the satellite television service provider DISH Network. A spinal injury left him quadriplegic, and he obtained a prescription for medical marijuana to treat severe muscle spasms. Despite a good employment record, he was terminated in 2010 after failing a random drug test. He sued DISH, citing a Colorado statute that prohibits termination for "lawful activity off the premises of the employer during nonwork hours." C.R.S. § 24-34-402.5 (PDF file).
Both the trial court and the appellate court ruled that marijuana use outside of work, even with a legal prescription, was not "lawful activity" within the meaning of the state statute. Marijuana use of any kind is still prohibited by federal law. The U.S. Supreme Court held in Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1 (2005) that state laws allowing marijuana use do not supersede federal laws prohibiting it. For an activity to be "lawful" in a wrongful termination case, the Colorado court held, "it must be permitted by, and not contrary to, both state and federal law." Coates, 303 P.3d at 151.