At the end of 2018, the Superior Court of Delaware held that a terminated employee could proceed with his lawsuit, alleging that his employer terminated him for being a medical marijuana cardholder. Chance v. Kraft Heinz Foods Co. In allowing the suit to move forward, the Delaware Court found that the anti-discrimination language in the Delaware Medical Marijuana Act (“DMMA”) created an implied cause of action for employees to sue their employers. Pennsylvania employers should pay attention to the Chance decision for several reasons: (1) the anti-discrimination language in the Delaware Medical Marijuana Act is similar to language contained in the Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Act; (2) the Delaware decision continues the recent trend of employee-sided decisions by courts in Connecticut and Rhode Island; and (3) the Delaware case dealt with a post-accident drug test, thus further expanding protections for employees who use medical marijuana outside of work.
The facts of the case are straightforward, but important to note:
Chance was a seven-year employee at Kraft’s Dover, Delaware facility. In 2016, he obtained a Delaware medical marijuana card and used medical marijuana to treat a variety of medical conditions. In late 2016, Kraft sent Chance for a post-accident drug test, after his “shuttle wagon” derailed. The Medical Review Officer contacted Chance and advised that he tested positive for medical marijuana. Chance explained to the MRO that he had a valid medical marijuana card and, indeed, produced a copy of the card. Nonetheless, the test was verified positive and Chance was terminated in accordance with Kraft’s drug testing policy.
Notably, there were no allegations that Kraft believed Chance was under the influence or that the derailment was related to his use of medical marijuana.
Chance subsequently filed suit, alleging violations of, among other things, the anti-discrimination clause contained in the DMMA. Kraft filed a motion to dismiss the suit, arguing that Federal Law, specifically the Controlled Substances Act, preempted the DMMA and that the DMMA did not create a private right of action. The Delaware Court disagreed with Kraft and ruled for Chance.
On the preemption argument, the Delaware court noted that the Controlled Substances Act “does not make it illegal to employ someone who uses marijuana, nor does it purport to regulate employment matters.” Rather, the CSA prohibits the unauthorized manufacture, dissemination, dispensing and possession of marijuana. Accordingly, said the Court, the CSA was not in conflict with the DMMA, which provides that an “employer may not discriminate against a person in hiring, termination, or any term or condition of employment . . . if the discrimination is based upon either of the following: a) The person’s status as a cardholder; or b) A registered qualifying patient’s positive drug test for marijuana . . . unless the patient used, possessed, or was impaired by marijuana on the premises of the place of employment or during the hours of employment.” In support of its finding that the two acts were not in conflict, the Delaware court cited to the 2017 decision of the Rhode Island Superior Court and the 2018 decision of the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut (Noffsinger v. SSC Niantic Operating Co, LLC).
Regarding the right of action argument, the Delaware Court made a common-sense ruling. According to the court, the legislature would not have included anti-discrimination language in the DMMA if there was no mechanism for enforcing it:
The purpose of Section 4905A is to prohibit employment-related discrimination based upon either status as a medical marijuana cardholder or a qualifying patient’s positive drug test . . . In the DMMA, no agency or commission has been tasked with enforcement of the anti-discrimination provision . . . no remedy other than a private right of action is available to cardholders . . . The fact that an anti-discrimination provision was included in the DMMA demonstrates legislative intent to remedy the problem of discrimination based upon one’s cardholder status . . . Absent a finding of an implied right of action, Section 4905A would be devoid of any purpose within the broader context of the statute.
Again, in finding a private right of action, the Delaware Court found support in the prior decisions of the Rhode Island and Connecticut courts.
So . . . why should a Delaware decision matter to Pennsylvania employers? Because the Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Act (the “PA Act”) includes an anti-discrimination provision similar to the one in the DMMA. By way of reminder, the PA Act states that “No employer may discharge, threaten, refuse to hire or otherwise discriminate or retaliate against any employee regarding an employee’s compensation, terms, conditions, location or privileges solely on the basis of such employee’s status as an individual who is certified to use medical marijuana.” MMA section 2103(b)(1). Because the two provisions are similar, it is reasonable to expect that a Pennsylvania Court, when confronted with the issue for the first time, will look to the decision of its neighboring state for guidance.
As Delaware joins the ranks of Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts in issuing employee friendly decisions and expanding protections for off-duty use of medical marijuana, Pennsylvania employers should take heed!
Conduct a careful review of your drug use and testing policies. A policy that mandates termination for a positive test, with no exception for legal off-duty medical marijuana use, could be discriminatory. Relying on the traditional argument that a positive test for marijuana can result in termination because marijuana remains illegal under federal law, is not recommended. Based on the decision in Kraft, such an argument likely will be rejected,
Proceed with caution when an employee, who is certified to use medical marijuana, tests positive, even if the test was administered post-accident. Rushing straight to termination based solely on a positive test may violate the PA Act.