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New Ruling on Medical Marijuana in the Workplace Clarifies Connecticut’s PUMA Legislation

A Connecticut federal court judge provided clarification on medical marijuana use under the Connecticut Palliative Use of Marijuana Act (PUMA) in Noffsinger v. SSC Niantic Operating Company LLC

Background

In Noffsinger, the plaintiff accepted a position with a health and rehabilitation center that was contingent on a negative drug test. The plaintiff informed the center during the interview process that she was qualified under PUMA to use marijuana for medical purposes to treat her post-traumatic stress disorder. After the plaintiff’s pre-employment drug test came back positive for THC, the center rescinded its job offer because it “uses federal law which indicates marijuana is still illegal” and further, that medical marijuana is not an approved prescription. The plaintiff sued alleging the center violated PUMA’s anti-discrimination provision, which allows qualified patients to use marijuana and prohibits employers from taking adverse employment actions because of the individual’s qualifying status. 

In its 2017 decision, the court concluded that the center violated PUMA by rescinding the plaintiff’s job offer as “federal law does not preempt PUMA’s prohibition on employers’ firing or refusing to hire qualified medical marijuana patients even if they test positive.” Following discovery, both parties moved for summary judgment. 

Court Grants Summary Judgment

In an order dated September 5, 2018, the same court granted summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff. In doing so, it rejected the center’s argument that the federal Drug Free Workplace Act (DFWA) required the center to rescind the plaintiff’s job offer. The court noted the DWFA does not require drug testing and does not regulate employees who use illegal drugs outside of work while off-duty, “much less an employee who uses medical marijuana outside the workplace in accordance with a program approved by state law.” 

The court also rejected the center’s argument that the federal False Claims Act bars the center from hiring the plaintiff because its employment of someone who uses medical marijuana in violation of federal law would amount to “a defrauding of the federal government.” The court stated there is no federal law that bars the center from hiring the plaintiff on account of her medicinal marijuana use outside of work hours. 

Further, the court rejected the center’s argument that PUMA prohibits discrimination only on the basis of one’s status as an approved medical marijuana patient, but based on one’s use of medical marijuana. The center relied on the plain language of the statute, which forbids an employer from refusing to hire someone “solely on the basis of such person’s or employee’s status as a qualifying patient.” Under this “restrictive interpretation,” employers such as the center would be free to fire qualified patients based on their use of medical marijuana − “the very purpose for which a patient has sought and obtained a qualifying status.” The court rejected this, reasoning the statute protects employees from discrimination based on their use of medical marijuana pursuant to their qualifying status. Further, it held “there would be no reason for a patient to seek PUMA status if not to use medical marijuana as permitted under PUMA.” 

It should be noted that the court declined to award the plaintiff attorney’s fees or punitive damages as PUMA does not expressly provide for these remedies. Similarly, the court dismissed the plaintiff’s claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress because the record did not show the center engaged in any unreasonable conduct in the manner in which it communicated with the plaintiff. 

Summary

This holding is significant for employers because it clarifies the relationship between federal and Connecticut state laws concerning marijuana use and provides guidelines for drug testing in the employment realm. It indicates that PUMA protects a qualifying patient’s medical marijuana use outside working hours. As this area of the law continues to develop, employers should consider reviewing their drug-related policies and adjust them as necessary.

© 2019 Wilson Elser

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About this Author

Stephen P. Brown, Wilson Elser, Fair Housing Insurance lawyer, Toxic Tort Attorney,
Partner

Steve Brown has a diverse civil litigation practice representing clients in a variety of industries in state and federal courts in Connecticut and across the country. During his career, Steve has represented and advised clients in litigation matters involving a wide array of subject matter areas and substantive legal issues. These include insurance coverage, professional liability, employment issues, fair housing and discrimination cliams, general liability, medical malpractice, transportation, construction, and environmental and toxic tort matters. He has extensive,...

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