Barbuto v. Advantage Sales & Marketing, LLC: Employers May Risk Disability Discrimination Claims by Prohibiting Use of Medical Marijuana by Qualified Disabled Employees

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by David B. Wilson and Jason McGraw

Case Focus

Since 2013, Massachusetts has allowed qualifying patients with certain medical conditions to lawfully obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes under the Medical Marijuana Act. St. 2012, c. 369, §1 et seq. Even so, the possession of marijuana remains a federal crime. 21 U.S.C. §§ 812(b)(1), (c), and 844(a). Thus, many Massachusetts employers maintain strict drug-free workplace and testing policies that prohibit the use of all “illegal drugs” and make no exception for the use of lawfully prescribed medical marijuana. In the landmark decision Barbuto v. Advantage Sales & Marketing, LLC, 477 Mass. 456 (2017), the Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) held that an employer with such a policy may be subject to a disability discrimination claim under Massachusetts law if the employer takes an adverse employment action or otherwise discriminates against a “qualified handicapped employee” based on the employee’s off-site, off-duty use of lawfully-prescribed medical marijuana. Id.

Background

In 2014, Cristina Barbuto was hired for an entry-level position with Advantage Sales and Marketing, LLC (“Advantage”), contingent upon her passing a mandatory drug test. Barbuto disclosed to her soon-to-be supervisor that she would test positive for marijuana because she used lawfully-prescribed medical marijuana to treat her Crohn’s disease. Id. at 458. She also told the supervisor that she did not use medical marijuana daily and would not use medical marijuana before or at work. Although the supervisor initially told Barbuto that her use of medical marijuana “should not be a problem” and called later to “confirm[] that her lawful medical use of marijuana would not be an issue with the company,” Advantage terminated Barbuto’s employment after her drug test results came back positive for marijuana. Id.

Barbuto filed suit alleging the mandatory drug test was an invasion of her privacy and that her termination was unlawful. The SJC addressed the termination claim.

Key Holdings In Barbuto

Massachusetts Disability Discrimination Law Applies to Qualified Handicapped Employees Who Use Medical Marijuana as Treatment

Under the Commonwealth’s anti-discrimination law, a “qualified handicapped employee” has: (1) a right to reasonable accommodation for a handicap to enable the employee to perform the essential functions of their job, and (2) a right to be free from discrimination because of their handicap. Id. at 460 & n.4. In Barbuto, the SJC held for the first time that these protections extend to qualified handicapped employees who lawfully use medical marijuana to treat their handicaps. Id. at 464.  Therefore, where an employer’s drug policy prohibits the use of marijuana and a qualified handicapped employee requests an accommodation to use medical marijuana, the employer has an obligation to: (1) participate in an interactive process, and (2) provide a reasonable accommodation, unless such an accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the employer’s business.

Advantage, which had not engaged in an interactive process, argued that Barbuto was not a qualified handicapped employee because the only accommodation she sought (the continued use of medical marijuana) was a federal crime, and was therefore unreasonable. Id. at 462. The SJC disagreed, and held that under the Medical Marijuana Act “the use and possession of medically prescribed marijuana by a qualifying patient is as lawful as the use and possession of any other prescribed medication.” Id. at 464.

Advantage also argued that even assuming Barbuto was a qualified handicapped employee, it had not engaged in handicap discrimination where Barbuto had been terminated not because of her handicap, but rather because she had failed a drug test that all employees were required to pass. Id. at 462. The SJC disagreed, holding that termination for violating such a policy “effectively denies a handicapped employee the opportunity of a reasonable accommodation, and therefore is appropriately recognized as handicap discrimination.” Id. at 467.

Failure to Engage in the Interactive Process Is Sufficient to Support a Claim of Disability Discrimination

The SJC permitted Barbuto’s claims for disability discrimination under Massachusetts law to survive the defendant’s motion to dismiss because the employer had wholly failed to participate in the interactive process. The Court emphasized that the “failure to explore a reasonable accommodation alone is sufficient to support a claim of handicap discrimination” where an employee can prove that a reasonable accommodation existed that would have enabled that employee to perform a job’s essential functions. Id. at 466.

An Employer’s Undue Hardship Defense Can Be Proven in a Number of Ways

Although the Court did not need to reach the defense of undue hardship in this case, the Court provided guidance for employers as to when an accommodation would not be required because it would cause the employer undue hardship. An undue hardship may be proven where the use of medical marijuana would: impair the employee’s work performance; pose an unacceptably significant safety risk to the public, the employee, or fellow employees; or violate an employer’s contractual or statutory obligations, thereby jeopardizing its ability to perform its business. Id. at 467-68. The Court also noted that the Medical Marijuana Act does not require employers to permit on-site medical use of marijuana as an accommodation to an employee. Id. at 464–65.

No Cause of Action under the Medical Marijuana Act or for Wrongful Termination in Violation of Public Policy

The SJC rejected Barbuto’s other claims – that her termination amounted to a violation of the Medical Marijuana Act and wrongful termination in violation of public policy. The Court held that aggrieved employees do not have a private right of action under the Medical Marijuana Act, “where such employees are already provided a remedy under our discrimination law, and where doing so would create potential confusion.” Id. at 470. Similarly, the Court declined to recognize a cause of action for wrongful termination in violation of public policy, “[b]ecause a competent employee has a cause of action for handicap discrimination where she is unfairly terminated for her use of medical marijuana to treat a debilitating medical condition.” Id. at 471.

More to Come on Marijuana and the Workplace

While Barbuto provided employees and employers with much guidance, many questions remain.

For example, nothing in Barbuto requires employers to tolerate the recreational use of marijuana by an employee. But what about accommodating a qualified handicapped employee without a medical marijuana card who lawfully uses marijuana purchased at a recreational dispensary to self-treat their handicap? That question remains unanswered in Massachusetts.

May employers require post-offer, pre-employment drug testing for all employees, regardless of their job duties or the potential safety risks to the employer, the employee, or the public? Although the issue has not yet been addressed by the SJC (the issue was stayed in the Superior Court while the unlawful termination claims were appealed), Barbuto’s claim under the Massachusetts Privacy Act survived the defendant’s motion to dismiss. Barbuto alleged that Advantage’s “drug test was unreasonable and not commensurate with her [entry-level, non-safety sensitive] job duties or with the type of business and industry in which [it] is engaged.” Barbuto v. Advantage Sales & Marketing, LLC, 2016 WL 8653056, at *2 (Mass. Super. May 31, 2016). In denying the motion to dismiss, the Superior Court noted that “[t]he only time the Supreme Judicial Court has held that a drug testing procedure violated [the Massachusetts Privacy Act] was in a case where the employee being tested was not engaged in a dangerous or safety-sensitive occupation.” Id. (emphasis added and citation omitted).

Whether the Medical Marijuana Act is preempted by federal law is another interesting question that has yet to be addressed, although other state courts have dealt with the issue of preemption of their state medical marijuana laws. See, e.g., Noffsinger v. SSC Niantic Operating Co. LLC, — F.Supp.3d –, 2017 WL 3401260 (D. Conn. Aug. 8, 2017) (holding that the Connecticut medical marijuana statute is not preempted by the federal Controlled Substances Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, or the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act).

David B. Wilson is a Partner at Hirsch Roberts Weinstein LLP where he practices labor and employment law. Dave is also an active member of the Boston Bar Association.

Jason M. McGraw is an Associate at Hirsch Roberts Weinstein LLP where he practices labor, employment, and higher education law. Jason is also an active member of the Boston Bar Association.

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