NJ Supreme Court Greenlights Employee’s Cannabis Discrimination Suit

The New Jersey Supreme Court recently gave the green light to a funeral director who filed a suit under the state’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD) alleging that he was terminated for legally using medical marijuana. According to the court’s decision in Wild v. Carriage Funeral Holdings, Inc., (A-91-18/082836) (Decided March 10, 2020), the plaintiff properly stated a claim under the LAD, which does not conflict with the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act (Compassionate Use Act).

NJ Supreme Court Greenlights Employee’s Cannabis Discrimination Suit

Facts of Wild v. Carriage Funeral Holdings, Inc.

Plaintiff Justin Wild worked for Carriage Funeral Holdings, Inc. (Carriage) as a licensed funeral director. In 2015, he was diagnosed with cancer and prescribed marijuana as permitted by the Compassionate Use Act. In May 2016, while working a funeral, a vehicle Wild was driving was struck by a vehicle that ran a stop sign. At the hospital, he notified a treating physician that he had a license to possess medical marijuana. The physician responded that “it was clear [plaintiff] was not under the influence of marijuana, and therefore no blood tests were required.” However, Wild’s supervisor, Defendant David Feeney, indicated that Wild would need a drug test to return to work.

Although Wild returned to work, several days later, Feeney informed Wild that “corporate” was unable to “handle” his marijuana use and that his employment was “being terminated because they found drugs in your system.” In a June 3, 2016 letter, “corporate” advised Wild he had been terminated not because of his drug use, but because he failed to disclose his use of medication, which might adversely affect his ability to perform his job duties.

Following his termination, Wild found at that rumors were circulating that hef was fired because he was “a drug addict” and that rumor made the rounds at the Bergen County Funeral Directors’ Association meeting. Wild subsequently filed suit, alleging that Carriage could not lawfully terminate his employment without violating the LAD. The trial court dismissed the suit after determining that the Compassionate Use Act “does not contain employment-related protections for licensed users of medical marijuana.”

The Appellate Division reversed. “[W]e reject the essential holding that brings this matter here and conclude that the Compassionate Use Act’s refusal to require an employment accommodation for a user does not mean that the Compassionate Use Act has immunized employers from obligations already imposed elsewhere,” Judge Clarkson Fisher Jr. wrote. “It would be ironic indeed if the Compassionate Use Act limited the Law Against Discrimination to permit an employer’s termination of a cancer patient’s employment by discriminating without compassion.”

In reaching its decision, the Appellate Division held that CUMMA’s refusal to require an employment accommodation for a medical marijuana user does not mean that the statute has immunized employers from obligations already imposed under other statutes, such as the NJLAD. “The Compassionate Use Act neither created new employment rights nor destroyed existing employment rights; it certainly expressed no intent to alter the LAD,” Judge Fisher explained. “Just as the Compassionate Use Act imposes no burden on defendants, it negates no rights or claims available to plaintiff that emanate from the LAD.”

The appellate court also noted that “just because” the Compassionate Use Act does not “‘require . . . an employer to accommodate the medical use of marijuana in any workplace’ 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.’”           Stressing that plaintiff “alleged only that he sought an accommodation that would allow his continued use of medical marijuana ‘off-site’ or during ‘off-work hours,’” the Appellate Division reversed the dismissal of his LAD claims.

NJ Supreme Court’s Decision in Wild v. Carriage Funeral Holdings, Inc.

The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed. “The judgment of the Appellate Division is affirmed substantially for the reasons expressed in that court’s opinion,” the court wrote in a per curium opinion. 

In reaching its decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with the Appellate Division that Wild stated a claim sufficient to survive defendants’ motion to dismiss and that there is no conflict between the Compassionate Use Act and the LAD. However, it declined to adopt the Appellate Division’s view that “the Compassionate Use Act intended to cause no impact on existing employment rights.” The court wrote: 

The Appellate Division correctly identified plaintiff’s disability discrimination and failure to accommodate causes of action as LAD claims to be evaluated under LAD standards; however, the Compassionate Use Act does have an impact on plaintiff’s existing employment rights. In a case such as this, in which plaintiff alleges that the Compassionate Use Act authorized his use of medical marijuana outside the workplace, that Act’s provisions may be harmonized with the law governing LAD disability discrimination claims. 

The New Jersey Supreme Court further explained that two CUMMA provisions “may affect a LAD discrimination or failure to accommodate claim in certain settings.” In N.J.S.A. 24:6I-14 (2018), the Legislature provided 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.” In N.J.S.A. 24:6I-8 (2018), the Legislature further stated in part that the Act “shall not be construed to permit a person to: a. operate, navigate or be in actual physical control of any vehicle, aircraft, railroad train, stationary heavy equipment or vessel while under the influence of marijuana.” According to the court, “To the extent that the circumstances surrounding a LAD disability discrimination claim were to implicate one or both of those provisions of the Compassionate Use Act, the Act would have an impact on that claim.”

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