Employment Law Alert: Washington Supreme Court Rules for Employer in Medical Marijuana Case


6/10/2011

In a victory for employers, the Washington Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Teletech Customer Care Management that Washington's Medical Use of Marijuana Act ("MUMA") does not protect medical marijuana users from adverse hiring or disciplinary decisions based on an employer's drug test policy. The lawsuit and all appeals were handled for the employer by Stoel Rives attorneys Jim Shore and Molly Daily.

Jane Roe (who did not use her real name because medical marijuana use is illegal under federal law) sued Teletech for terminating her employment after she failed a drug test required by Teletech's substance abuse policy. She alleged that she had been wrongfully terminated in violation of public policy and MUMA since her marijuana use was "protected" by MUMA. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Teletech, and Roe appealed.

The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of in Teletech, holding that MUMA provides an affirmative defense to state criminal prosecutions of qualified medical marijuana users, but "does not provide a private cause of action for discharge of an employee who uses medical marijuana, either expressly or impliedly, nor does MUMA create a clear public policy that would support a claim for wrongful discharge in violation of such a policy." The Court's holding applies regardless of whether the employee's marijuana use was while working or while off-site during non-work time. Adding to a significant victory for employers, the Court's decision extends to the current version of MUMA as amended by the legislature in 2007, and not just the original version passed by voters in 1998, which was in effect when the facts of this case arose.

The plaintiff in the Teletech case did not raise a disability discrimination or reasonable accommodation claim under Washington's Law Against Discrimination, and the Supreme Court therefore did not expressly reach that particular issue. But the Court did point out that marijuana remains illegal under federal law regardless of what the State of Washington does, and that it would be incongruous "to allow an employee to engage in illegal activity" in the process of finding a public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine. Moreover, the Court noted that the Washington State Human Rights Commission itself acknowledges that "it would not be a reasonable accommodation of a disability for an employer to violate federal law, or allow an employee to violate federal law, by employing a person who uses medical marijuana."

The workplace implications of medical marijuana continue to be a developing area in many states. California's Supreme Court has ruled in a manner consistent with Washington. In Emerald Steel Fabricators, Inc. v. Bureau of Labor & Industries, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that because federal criminal law preempts Oregon's medical marijuana law, employers in Oregon do not have to accommodate employees' use of medical marijuana. But some states are more protective of an employee's medical marijuana use. Given the continued efforts by marijuana advocates and civil rights groups to "push the envelope" of medical marijuana laws into the workplace, it is important for employers to continue to closely monitor legislative and legal developments. A recent effort to include workplace protections for medical marijuana users via amendments to Washington's medical marijuana laws was defeated, but we anticipate similar efforts may be made in other states in the coming years.

There are many sound reasons why employers have zero tolerance policies and engage in drug testing of applicants and/or employees, including customer requirements, government contracting requirements (e.g., the federal Drug Free Workplace Act), federal or state laws (including DOT requirements for transportation workers), workplace safety, productivity, health and absenteeism, and liability. To best protect themselves, employers should review their policies to make sure that illegal drug use under both state and federal law is prohibited, and that their policies prohibit any detectable amount of illegal drugs as opposed to an "under the influence" standard. Employers should also ensure that all levels of their human resources personnel know how to handle medical marijuana issues as they arise.

For questions on the Teletech decision and other workplace medical marijuana issues, please contact:

James Shore at (206) 386-7578 or jmshore@stoel.com
Molly Daily at (206) 386-7557 or mmdaily@stoel.com


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