California Worker Can Pursue Employment Contract, But Not Disability Discrimination, Claim Based Upon Medical Marijuana Use

A recent federal court ruling issued an important reminder about how far the Fair Employment and Housing Act’s protections against disability discrimination do, and do not, go. The federal district court in the Eastern District of California explained that the FEHA clearly does not prohibit employers from terminating employees for using medical marijuana. However, if the employer creates personnel policies promising not to punish medical marijuana-using employees in states where the practice is legal, the employer may face a breach of employment contract claim for firing an employee for no reason other than his medical marijuana use.

The employee in this case was a “material handler” at a distribution center outside Modesto for Kohl’s Department Stores, Inc. Five years into his employment with Kohl’s, the handler received a medical diagnosis of anxiety and a recommended treatment of marijuana. A year later, Kohl’s updated its personnel policies to state that employees taking medical marijuana in states where it was legal would not face discipline or termination for using the drug. Based upon this, the handler stopped looking for a new job, but he didn’t tell his employer about his marijuana use.

In 2014, the handler was hurt at work. As part of the medical treatment he received related to that accident, the handler underwent a drug test and tested positive for marijuana. Kohl’s promptly fired him. The handler responded by suing for disability discrimination in violation of the FEHA. He also accused Kohl’s of failing to engage in the required interactive process and failing to accommodate his disability. Finally, the employee accused Kohl’s of breaching its employment contract with him.

The employer moved for summary judgment, and the trial judge agreed that the employee could not advance his FEHA claims. The problem with these claims related back to a 2008 case that interpreted the relationship between the FEHA and the state law that exempted the medical use of marijuana from state criminal prosecution. The California Supreme Court, in that case, said that the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 did not give the medical use of marijuana the same legal status as the use of other completely legal prescription drugs. Nothing in California’s medical marijuana law changed the fact that marijuana use is completely illegal under federal law.

Since the FEHA does not require employers to accommodate illegal drug use, the court refused to extend the FEHA’s anti-disability discrimination protections to medial marijuana users. Both before and after the enactment of the Compassionate Use Act, the law did not bar employers from firing marijuana users, regardless of why they use, the 2008 decision stated. As a result, Kohl’s decision to terminate this employee for his use of medical marijuana did not violate the statute.

The trial judge did, however, side with the employee on his breach of employment contract claim. When Kohl’s established new personnel policies in 2012, stating that employees in states with medical marijuana laws would not incur employment discipline for using marijuana under a doctor’s recommendation, those policies became an implied part of the handler’s employment contract with Kohl’s. This meant that the policies were binding on the employer, and, when it fired the handler based solely upon proof of his use of medical marijuana, it violated its contractual obligation of good faith and fair dealing with the employee.

There are many different conditions that may constitute a disability, and an employer’s discrimination based upon your disability is generally illegal under California law. If you think that your employer has taken an improper discriminatory action against you, the diligent Oakland employment attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch are here to help. We have many years of experience representing employees in their FEHA discrimination cases. Contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-2575 to schedule your confidential initial consultation today.

More Blog Posts:

California Employee Allowed to Continue Disability Discrimination Case Despite Failure to Obtain Doctor’s Note About Limitations, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, Sept. 30, 2016

California Appeals Court Upholds $16M Judgment in Age Discrimination Case, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, June 30, 2016

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