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Court Rules in Favor of Employee in New Jersey Disability Discrimination Case Involving Medical Marijuana

Medical marijuana use is legal to varying degrees in more than half of the states in the U.S., including New Jersey. The Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act (CUMMA), which was first enacted in 2009, allows individuals to purchase, possess, and use marijuana products under the direction of a physician. Prior to 2019, the text of the statute was rather ambiguous about how it impacted employees’ rights in the workplace. The New Jersey Supreme Court recently ruled on a case that began in 2017, in which the plaintiff alleged that the defendant fired him because of his lawful medical marijuana use, in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD). The court affirmed a decision from the Appellate Division that allowed the case to go forward.

Two provisions of CUMMA appear to implicate employees’ rights. Section 8 of the statute states in part that the law does not allow an individual to operate any sort of vehicle or heavy machinery “while under the influence of marijuana.” Section 16 provides that the law does not require “an employer to accommodate the medical use of marijuana in any workplace.”

The LAD prohibits employers from firing an employee or subjecting them to other adverse or disparate treatment because of a disability. The statute defines “disability” to include “physical…mental, psychological or developmental disabilit[ies]” that are “demonstrable, medically or psychologically, by accepted clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques.” The definition of “debilitating medical condition” provided by CUMMA overlaps with the LAD’s definition of “disability” in numerous areas.

The plaintiff was diagnosed with cancer in 2015, about two years after he began working for the defendant. His doctor prescribed medical marijuana in compliance with CUMMA. In 2016, the plaintiff was involved in a minor traffic accident while driving for work. He was not at fault, and the physician who treated him at the hospital said he was clearly not under the influence of marijuana. The defendant insisted that he submit to a blood test. About a week later, the defendant informed him that his employment was terminated because the drug test was positive for marijuana. The plaintiff later learned that a rumor was circulating among his professional peers that he had been fired because he was a “drug addict.”

The lawsuit alleged disability discrimination under the LAD. After the trial court dismissed the complaint, the Appellate Division reinstated it. The court interpreted § 16 of CUMMA to mean that just as the law creates no obligations for employers, it does not affect any employee rights under the LAD. It held that the plaintiff’s disability discrimination claims could continue to trial. The defendant appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

The state’s highest court affirmed the Appellate Division’s ruling, and followed most of the lower court’s reasoning. It disagreed, however, with the Appellate Division’s conclusion that CUMMA has no effect on employees’ rights under the LAD. The plaintiff acknowledged during oral argument that, if CUMMA had not become law, he would not have been able to assert a claim under the LAD. The court also noted that, while the exceptions described in §§ 8 and 16 of CUMMA are not factors in this case, they could impact future cases, such as if an employee with a medical marijuana prescription were consuming marijuana while on the job.

The experienced and skilled disability discrimination attorneys at the Resnick Law Group can help you in your dispute with an employer in New Jersey or New York. To schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your rights and options, please contact us today online, at 973-781-1204, or at 646-867-7997.

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