Barbuto v. Advantage Sales & Marketing, LLC: Employers May Risk Disability Discrimination Claims by Prohibiting Use of Medical Marijuana by Qualified Disabled EmployeesPosted: October 26, 2017
by David B. Wilson and Jason McGraw
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.
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.
On November 6, 2012, Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative legalizing the use of marijuana by qualifying patients who have been diagnosed with a debilitating medical condition. Effective January 1, 2013, the “Act for the Humanitarian Medical Use of Marijuana” presents a number of issues for cities and towns concerning the exercise of their zoning powers. The Act established a process whereby medical marijuana treatment centers, defined as not-for-profit entities that acquire, cultivate, possess, process, transfer, transport, sell, distribute, dispense, or administer marijuana or products containing marijuana for medical use, may apply to the Department of Public Health (DPH) for registration. The Act provides for the registration of up to 35 medical marijuana treatment centers initially, with at least one but not more than five centers per county.
Although no reference is made in the Act to municipal zoning control or its applicability to medical marijuana treatment facilities, the DPH regulations promulgated thereunder in mid-2013, see 105 CMR 725.000, address zoning for these facilities, referred to as registered marijuana dispensaries (RMDs): “The Department does not mandate any involvement by municipalities or local boards of health in the regulation of RMDs, qualifying patients with hardship cultivation requirements or any other aspects of marijuana for medical use. However, nothing in 105 CMR 725.000 shall be construed so as to prohibit lawful local oversight and regulation. . . that does not conflict or interfere with the operation of 105 CMR 725.000.” 105 CMR 725.600. Accordingly, per the Home Rule Amendment, Mass. Const., amend. LXXXIX, Massachusetts cities and towns may in their discretion adopt zoning ordinances and bylaws relative to the siting, development, and operation of medical marijuana treatment centers, as long as their provisions are not at odds with the Act or the DPH regulations.
To Zone or Not to Zone
A municipality is under no obligation to zone for RMDs, and many cities and towns either have yet to adopt such zoning or have elected not to do so. The DPH regulations mandate a buffer zone around certain facilities for children. Absent a more stringent local requirement, “a RMD shall not be sited within a radius of five hundred feet of a school, daycare center, or any facility in which children commonly congregate. The 500 foot distance. . . is measured in a straight line from the nearest point of the facility in question to the nearest point of the proposed RMD.” Municipalities may establish their own buffer zones from these or other facilities, provided they are mindful that, collectively, these zones may not effectively prohibit RMDs city- or town-wide.
The Office of the Attorney General has opined that an outright ban on medical marijuana treatment centers in a municipality frustrates the purposes of the Act and, consequently, is invalid. “The Act’s legislative purpose could not be served if a municipality could prohibit treatment centers within its borders, for if one municipality could do so, presumably all could do so.” Letter from the Att’y Gen. to the Town of Wakefield, Mar. 13, 2013, available at http://www.mlu.ago.state.ma.us/.
The Attorney General’s Office has also rejected bylaws prohibiting home cultivation as an accessory use, restricting home cultivation to a particular area of the community, imposing buffer zones around home cultivation sites, and requiring a special permit for home cultivation. Home cultivation of medical marijuana is authorized by the Act and the DPH regulations for qualifying patients whose access to a RMD is limited by verified financial hardship, a physical incapacity to access reasonable transportation, or the lack of a medical marijuana treatment center within a reasonable distance from the patient’s residence.
For municipalities that choose to zone for medical marijuana by adopting reasonable regulations, the choice is between incorporating RMDs into the zoning already in effect and establishing an overlay district within which RMDs may be sited.
Incorporation into Existing Zoning
Using a more traditional approach to zoning, a municipality may amend its existing zoning ordinance or bylaw to identify and define RMDs and to specify the zoning district or districts where they are permitted. In doing so, it subjects a RMD to the same dimensional and density requirements and performance standards applicable to other uses in the same district. Dimensional and density requirements might include area, frontage, and setback constraints, among others. Performance standards might regulate noise, traffic, or other aspects of a use for compatibility with its surroundings. If a city or town so chooses, it may zone cultivation and processing operations separately from retail facilities. Although both qualify as RMDs per the DPH regulations, these uses need not be co-located.
A city or town may elect to allow RMDs only by special permit, in some or all of the zoning districts in which they are an available use. The Attorney General has cautioned municipalities, however, that an ordinance or bylaw must provide adequate standards to guide a board in deciding whether to grant or deny the special permit. It may not be enough for a municipality to rely on the general requirement of the Zoning Act, at G.L. c. 40A, § 9, that the use be “in harmony with the general purpose and intent of the ordinance or by-law,” nor are a municipality’s special permit criteria for other uses always appropriate for application to RMDs. Municipalities have been advised “to list specific criteria for. . . consider[ation] when reviewing [an] application.” Letter from the Att’y Gen. to the Town of Westborough, July 11, 2013, available at http://www.mlu.ago.state.ma.us/.
In its regulation of medical marijuana treatment centers, a municipality must also be cautious not to run afoul of the zoning exemption available to agricultural uses, under G.L. c. 40A, § 3. To the extent that an RMD’s operations qualify as commercial agriculture thereunder, a municipality cannot require a special permit for, or unreasonably regulate or prohibit, the use.
Creation of an Overlay District
An alternative to incorporating RMDs into an existing zoning ordinance or bylaw is to create an overlay district for medical marijuana treatment centers. An overlay zone is a district superimposed on one or more established zoning districts which may apply supplemental restrictions on uses in these districts or permit uses otherwise disallowed. By adopting an overlay district, a municipality gains greater control over where RMDs may be sited. The limits of acceptable locations need not coincide with the boundaries of the municipality’s existing zoning districts, but may be determined by the city or town in its discretion upon consideration of existing and anticipated land uses and the compatibility of RMDs with these uses. A municipality may incorporate dimensional requirements and performance standards specific to the overlay district, and may even pair these regulations with buffer zones surrounding schools, daycare centers, or other uses potentially impacted by a RMD. A special permit may be required for the development and operation of a RMD within the overlay district; or the municipality may choose to permit these facilities as-of-right or subject only to site plan review.
Host Community Agreements
Several Massachusetts municipalities have opted to negotiate host community agreements with potential RMDs to eliminate or mitigate any possible adverse effects of RMDs. Neither the Act nor the DPH regulations prohibit these agreements. And while a municipality may not require a RMD to enter into a host community agreement, such an agreement may expedite a RMD’s receipt of a letter of support or non-opposition from the municipality, now a requirement of the DPH licensing process as updated in mid-2015. A municipality might otherwise choose to issue its letter of support or non-opposition only upon a RMD’s completion of the permitting process, once the city or town is satisfied that the project has been adequately vetted.
Among the most common subjects of host community agreements are financial compensation due the municipality, taxes, and charitable contributions. Financial assistance to a city or town may help offset community impacts, fund public health and safety initiatives, or otherwise aid the municipality. The payment of real estate taxes or the making of payments in-lieu-of taxes is also worthy of negotiation; otherwise, because RMDs are required by the Act to be not-for-profit entities, they may qualify as tax-exempt. Entering into a tax agreement helps to alleviate any questions about the payment of taxes to the municipality. Finally, a number of Massachusetts municipalities have negotiated charitable contributions by RMDs in exchange for the community’s support of, or non-opposition to, the development of a medical marijuana treatment center.
In summary, Massachusetts cities and towns have a choice about whether to zone for medical marijuana treatment centers and, if they do, of how to approach the rezoning process. Some municipalities have utilized traditional zoning practices, allowing RMDs in one or more existing zoning districts and often requiring a special permit. Other municipalities have developed overlay districts, within which RMDs may be sited subject to dimensional requirements, performance standards, and other regulations specific to the use. Regardless of which approach is chosen, a municipality would be wise to explore negotiation of a host community agreement with a potential RMD and avail itself of the financial incentives that may be offered in exchange for the municipality’s cooperation with the application process.
Lisa L. Mead and Adam J. Costa are partners at Blatman, Bobrowski, Mead & Talerman, LLC. They concentrate their practice in the areas of general municipal, land use and environmental law, representing both municipal and private clients throughout Massachusetts.