New Jersey Supreme Court Allows Disability Discrimination Claim Brought by Medical Marijuana User Employee to Move Forward

Last month, New Jersey’s high court ruled in Wild v. Carriage Funeral Holdings, Inc. that an employee’s disability discrimination claim brought under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), arising from being terminated for his use of medical marijuana, was not barred by the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act (CUMMA), and that he had sufficiently stated his claim to survive a motion to dismiss.

Plaintiff, a funeral director, brought suit against defendant-employer/Carriage Funeral Holdings, Inc. (“Carriage”), and others, based on, among other things, allegations that defendants violated the LAD by terminating him due to his disability and failing to accommodate him, as a result of his lawful use of medical marijuana for treatment of his cancer, as permitted by the CUMMA and in accordance with his physician’s treatment plan.

Defendants moved to dismiss plaintiff’s complaint, and the trial court granted the motion, with prejudice, finding plaintiff was lawfully terminated for violating Carriage’s drug use policy after a positive drug test, given to him by his employer after plaintiff’s car was struck by another vehicle while plaintiff was driving for work purposes. In reaching its decision, the trial court relied, in part, on the CUMMA’s declaration that employers are not required to accommodate medical marijuana use in the workplace.

Plaintiff appealed, and the Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s decision, finding that the CUMMA did not preclude a workplace accommodation from being imposed by other legislation. 458 N.J. Super. 416, 420 (App. Div. 2019). More specifically, the court found that the CUMMA’s statement that “Nothing in this Act shall be construed to require … an employer to accommodate the medical use of marijuana in any workplace” did not, as plaintiff claimed, conflict with the LAD. Id., at 428. In further considering the relationship between the CUMMA and the LAD, the court stated that the CUMMA’s intent was not to “impact” “existing employment rights.” Id. Thus, the CUMMA did not create any “new employment rights” or destroy any “existing employment rights” and “certainly expressed no intent to alter the LAD.” Id.

After examining the relationship between these two laws, the Appellate Division conducted a “routine” analysis of plaintiff’s claims under the LAD. Id., at 429. After engaging in a fact-specific analysis of plaintiff’s claims, the court rejected defendants’ arguments that plaintiff failed to plead defendants knew of his disability and failed to seek an accommodation. Id., at 429-34. In further support of its decision, the court noted that plaintiff did not seek an accomodation for the “right” to use medical marijuana in any workplace, instead, he only sought an accommodation to allow his continued use of medical marijuana, while off-site and not during work hours. Id. The Court held plaintiff had sufficiently stated a claim sufficient to withstand dismissal.

The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division’s decision that plaintiff’s complaint properly stated a cause of action, for substantially the same reasons as that articulated by the Appellate Division. The Supreme Court, however, declined to adopt the court’s view that the CUMMA caused no impact on existing employment rights, explaining, in part, that if not for the CUMMA (authorizing medical marijuana use outside of work), plaintiff would have no LAD claim.

Employers should be aware that there is an evolving body of case law related to the use of medical marijuana in the workplace in New Jersey and elsewhere. In 2018, the District Court of New Jersey held that neither the CUMMA nor the LAD provide a basis for an employee’s claim that a workplace drug testing requirement should be waived as an accommodation for employees who use medical marijuana. As such, the Court dismissed plaintiff’s claims under the LAD for disability discrimination and failure to accommodate. Cotto v. Ardagh Glass Packing, Inc., No. CV 18-1037 (RBK/AMD), 2018 WL 3814278, at *8 (D.N.J. Aug. 10, 2018). Additionally, the November 2020 election will include a ballot question that asks voters whether they support legalizing recreational marijuana for individuals over the age of 21. If approved, a constitutional amendment—the New Jersey Marijuana Legalization Amendment—legalizing the recreational use of marijuana would pass and take effect in January 2021.

For now, New Jersey employers should begin review of their related employee policies and practices particularly as they concern employee use of medical marijuana and consider whether changes should be made to conform with the evolving law. If you have any questions regarding this blog, please feel free to contact an attorney in the Gibbons Employment & Labor Law Department.

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