Massachusetts High Court Concludes that State Anti-Discrimination Laws Protect Medical Marijuana Users

by Partridge Snow & Hahn LLP

Partridge Snow & Hahn LLP

In May 2017, we reported on Callahan v. Darlington Fabrics and the Moore Company, a Rhode Island Superior Court decision that applied workplace anti-discrimination protections to medical marijuana users. Massachusetts has now joined the club.

In Barbuto v. Advantage Sales and Marketing LLC, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has concluded that the Commonwealth’s general anti-discrimination law, M.G.L. ch. 151B, requires Massachusetts employers to reasonably accommodate their employees’ off-duty use of medically-prescribed marijuana, and prohibits Massachusetts employers from terminating employees solely because they use medical marijuana outside the workplace. The decision is a final judgment from Massachusetts’ highest court, and is now governing law in Massachusetts. The rulings contained in the decision impact all Massachusetts employers.


In late summer 2014, Advantage Sales and Marketing (“ASM”) hired Christine Barbuto for an entry-level sales and marketing position. In connection with the on-boarding of her employment, ASM informed Ms. Barbuto that it was committed to a drug-free workplace, and that she would be subject to a mandatory drug test. In response, Ms. Barbuto indicated that she was likely to fail the required drug test. She explained that she suffered from Crohn’s disease; that her physician had provided her with a written certification that allowed her to use marijuana for medicinal purposes; and that, as a result, she was a qualified medical marijuana patient under the Massachusetts Medical Marijuana Act. She added that she did not use marijuana daily, and would not consume it before work or at work. ASM, however, declined to waive the drug test requirement for Ms. Barbuto.

In September 2014, Ms. Barbuto submitted to ASM’s mandatory drug test, and tested positive for marijuana. As a result of the positive test, and consistent with its drug-free workplace policy, ASM terminated Ms. Barbuto’s employment.

Thereafter, Ms. Barbuto filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against ASM, alleging various common law and statutory claims. Among those claims, Ms. Barbuto alleged that ASM had engaged in disability discrimination in violation of M.G.L. ch. 151B. Specifically, Ms. Barbuto alleged that ASM had failed to “reasonably accommodate” her Crohn’s disease, and her prescribed off-duty use of marijuana as a treatment for that illness, when ASM refused to modify its drug testing requirement and terminated her employment.

In defense to Ms. Barbuto’s claims, ASM argued that Ms. Barbuto did not qualify for anti-discrimination protection under Massachusetts law because her requested disability accommodation – an allowance to use medical marijuana – violated Federal law, and therefore was per se unreasonable. Based on that reasoning, ASM argued that Ms. Barbuto’s failure-to-accommodate claim was invalid, and subject to immediate dismissal without a trial. The Supreme Judicial Court rejected ASM’s defense, concluding:

  • “A qualified handicapped employee has a right under [M.G.L. 151B], not to be fired because of her handicap, and that right includes the right to require an employer to make a reasonable accommodation for her handicap to enable her to perform the essential functions of her job.”
  • “Under Massachusetts law, as a result of 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. Where, in the opinion of the employee’s physician, medical marijuana is the most effective medication for the employee’s debilitating medical condition, and where any alternative medication whose use would be permitted by the employer’s drug policy would be less effective, an exception to an employer’s drug policy to permit its use is a facially reasonable accommodation.”
  • “To declare an accommodation for medical marijuana to be per se unreasonable out of respect for Federal law would not be respectful of the recognition of Massachusetts voters, shared by the legislatures or voters in the vast majority of States, that marijuana has an accepted medical use for some patients suffering from debilitating medical conditions.”

Based on these conclusions, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that Ms. Barbuto’s off-duty medical marijuana use did not per se disqualify her from protection under M.G.L. ch.151B. The Court then remanded the case to the trial court to determine whether the specific fact circumstances of Ms. Barbuto’s termination violated M.G.L. ch. 151B’s reasonable accommodation standards.

Impact on Massachusetts Employers

The Barbuto decision provides employers with several directives with respect to medical marijuana use and the workplace:

  • Massachusetts employers may not adopt blanket prohibitions on employee use of medical marijuana. Rather, employers must reasonably accommodate an employee’s use of medical marijuana, when that use is: (a) off-duty; and (b) medically certified as necessary for the employee to perform the functions of his or her job.
  • Massachusetts employers need not accommodate every use of medical marijuana. As emphasized by the Supreme Judicial Court, M.G.L. ch. 151B imposes a reasonable accommodation standard. As such, a Massachusetts employer is not required to accommodate an employee’s medical marijuana use if such use would “impose an undue hardship on [the employers’ businesses].” As outlined in Barbuto, M.G.L. ch. 151B does not require accommodation of an employee’s medical marijuana use if such use “would impair the employee’s performance of her work or pose an ‘unacceptably significant’ safety risk to the public, the employee, or her fellow employees. . . . Alternatively, an undue hardship might be shown if the employer can prove that the use of marijuana by an employee would violate an employer’s contractual or statutory obligation, and thereby jeopardize its ability to perform its business.” For example, and as noted by the Supreme Judicial Court, the Barbuto decision does not require a Massachusetts employer to accommodate an employee’s medical marijuana use, if such accommodation would violate Federal Department of Transportation regulations that prohibit marijuana use by certain defined “safety-sensitive” employees.
  • Massachusetts employers may not terminate or discipline employees solely because of their off-duty medical marijuana use. A Massachusetts employer may not subject an employee to an adverse employment action because of that employee’s off-duty medical marijuana use, unless the use imposes an actual and undue hardship on that employer’s business.
  • Massachusetts employers may restrict on-duty use of medical marijuana. The Barbuto decision stresses that the Medical Marijuana Act does not require “any accommodation of any on-site medical use of marijuana in any place of employment.”
  • Massachusetts employers are not (yet) required to accommodate off-duty, recreational use of marijuana. The reasonable accommodation standards stated in Barbuto apply exclusively to medical marijuana use outside the workplace. Barbuto does not discuss, or apply to, employer policies that prohibit employee use of recreational marijuana. That said, in Barbuto, the Supreme Judicial Court indicates a deference to the voter initiatives that have legalized the general use and possession of marijuana in Massachusetts. These statements may indicate a future direction of judicial precedent that is inclined to limit employer policies that restrict employee use of recreational marijuana outside the workplace.

The Barbuto decision represents a new compliance benchmark for Massachusetts employers. To reduce litigation exposure, we recommend that employers re-evaluate their drug-testing policies, and carefully consider employee accommodation requests related to medical marijuana use.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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