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Colorado Supreme Court Upholds Employer's Termination of Medical Marijuana User in Coats v. Dish Network

On June 15, 2015, the Colorado Supreme Court issued its highly anticipated decision in Coats v. Dish Network. The court in Coats upheld the termination of an employee who failed a random drug test after using marijuana for medicinal purposes during his off-duty hours. The employee argued that because his use of medical marijuana was lawful under Colorado law, he was protected from discharge under Colorado’s “lawful activities” statute, which generally prohibits employers from terminating employees for engaging in lawful off-duty conduct.

Rejecting the employee’s argument, the court held that as used in Colorado’s lawful activities statute, the term “lawful” refers to those activities that are lawful under both state and federal law. Because marijuana use remains unlawful under federal law, employees who use marijuana, even for medicinal purposes, are not protected by the statute. By affirming the right of employers to implement and enforce drug policies that fit their particular needs, the court’s decision brings much-needed clarity to this aspect of Colorado law.

Appearing on behalf of the Colorado Mining Association, attorneys co-authored an amicus (or “friend-of-the-court”) brief in support of the employer’s position, arguing that employers in safety-sensitive industries such as mining, in particular, should be entitled to discharge employees for off-duty marijuana use even if that use is permissible under state law. The Colorado Mining Association is an industry organization whose 1,000 members include the producers of coal, metals and other minerals throughout Colorado, the west and the world, together with vendors and service providers to Colorado’s $8.8 billion industry. The mining industry places a high priority on the safety of its workforce. 

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About this Author

Charitie L. Hartsig, probate lawyer, labor rights attorney, Ryley Carlock
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Charitie joined Ryley Carlock & Applewhite in 2007. Charitie practices in the areas of labor and employment law, general commercial litigation, probate and trust litigation, and appellate advocacy.

In her employment practice, Charitie represents employers in litigation before federal and state courts and agencies, including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Arizona Civil Rights Division. Charitie also provides counseling and training seminars on a wide range of employment matters such as personnel policies, hiring and firing,...

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Mike Moberly, Attorney, Ryley Carlock Law Firm
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Mike has been an attorney with Ryley Carlock & Applewhite since graduating from law school in 1983 and has been a shareholder with the firm since 1989. He was formerly the Chairman of the firm's Executive Committee, and served as head of its Labor and Employment practice.

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