By Zeinab Fardos
In March of 2020, the story of Justin Wild created a successful stepping stone for the State of New Jersey employees who seek to sue their employers for termination due to the legal use of medical marijuana when off duty. Affirming the lower New Jersey appellate court, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that an employee’s claim for reasonable accommodations to use medical marijuana outside of work hours may withstand a motion of summary judgement because such a claim is predicated on facts including whether such claim contemplated marijuana use on the job or involved the employee operating a vehicle or heavy machinery while under the influence. Wild v. Carriage Funeral Holdings, Inc., 227 A.3d 1206, 1208 (2020).
This case had an unusual but important procedural path. Wild originally only sued his employer and “unknown Carriage employees”. Employer removed the matter to federal court and moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim. In response, Wild amended his complaint to add three named, fellow employees as defendants. The federal judge allowed Wild’s amendment to the complaint which destroyed diversity and therefore the case was remanded back to state court. The trial court granted the motion to dismiss and the subject appeal moved forward.
The facts of the case, are, in May 2016, Justin Wild was employed as a funeral director at Carriage Funeral Home and was legally using medical marijuana to treat his cancer. One day during work, Wild was involved in a car accident that put him in the hospital. As a precondition to return to work, Wild was required to take a drug test. Marijuana can remain in a person’s blood system weeks after use. Wild fearing that his off-duty use would show up in his blood test results, informed his employer of his lawful use of medical marijuana, certified to him under the Compassionate Use Act (CUA), as part of his cancer treatment plan. The next month, Wild was fired via a letter explaining it was a result of Wild’s failure to inform Carriage of his medical marijuana usage which could have potentially affected his work performance. Wild v. Carriage Funeral Holdings, Inc., 205 A.3d 1144, 1150 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2019).
Wild sued his employer, Carriage, arguing that his termination violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD). His employer filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim because the CUA “says nothing that would require an employer to accommodate the medical use of marijuana in any workplace.” Id.
Both the New Jersey Superior Court and Supreme Court found that the CUA and NJLAD are compatible. CUA provides for the legal use of medical marijuana to treat specific illnesses and the NJLAD prohibits an employer from discriminating against an employee simply because of an illness. “[J]ust because the Legislature declared that ‘[n]othing in [the Compassionate Use Act] shall be construed to require … an employer to accommodate the medical use of marijuana in any workplace,” N.J.S.A. 24:6I-14, does not mean that the LAD may not impose such an obligation, particularly when the declination of an accommodation to such a user relates only to use “in any workplace.” Id. at 434.
So, what does all this mean? This decision means that employers should ensure that their rules and guidelines satisfy the demands of the CUA and that their actions comply with NJLAD. It also means that employees may bring discrimination claims if their employers make adverse decisions against them due to their off-duty use of medical marijuana. Employees should note that they are entitled to NJLAD protected accommodations for their lawful use of medical marijuana outside of their place of employment and if their jobs do not involve the operation of vehicles or heavy machinery.
Because the laws surrounding medical marijuana in the workplace may be ambiguous, employers should find an approach that reconciles their businesses interests while fairly accommodating their employees’ off-duty, legal use of medical marijuana. The outcome of this case is that employees and employers now have a clearer guideline to medical marijuana use as it applies to the employment relationship.