For the first time, a court in Connecticut has found an employer liable for discriminating against a medical marijuana user. The decision by a federal judge in Noffsinger v. SSC Niantic Operating Company, LLC helps to clear the haze surrounding Connecticut’s Palliative Use of Marijuana Act (“PUMA”). As a refresher, PUMA prohibits employers from refusing employment to or discharging an individual based on that individual’s status as a qualifying patient of medical marijuana.
The plaintiff in the case had applied for a job with a health and rehabilitation facility. The plaintiff ultimately received a job offer, subject to completing a background check and a drug screen. Prior to the drug screen, the plaintiff informed the company that she was a qualifying patient who used medical marijuana to treat her PTSD. Nevertheless, when her drug screen came back positive, the company revoked the job offer on the day before she was to begin work. Based on these facts, the court granted summary judgment for the plaintiff.
If the case sounds familiar so far, you are likely a diligent reader of our employment law updates. The case was noted last year when the same judge concluded for the first time that PUMA impliedly allows individuals to sue for discrimination. (As worded, the statute was not clear if individuals had a private right of action.)
In rejecting the employer’s defenses in the new decision, the court addressed various important issues regarding PUMA’s non-discrimination provision. First, the court clarified that PUMA protects both an individual’s status as a qualifying patient of medical marijuana and that individual’s actual use of medical marijuana. However, the court pointed out that employers can still discipline employees who are under the influence at work.
Second, the court left open the possibility that PUMA does not protect users of Marinol, a synthetic form of THC (the main chemical in cannabis), although the court made clear that medical users of synthetic marijuana were protected.
Third, in a win for employers, the court concluded that attorney’s fees and punitive damages are not available under PUMA.
Because this was a federal judge interpreting state law, the decision is not binding on Connecticut state courts. Nevertheless, employers should take care when facing this situation, and should consider consulting counsel before revoking a job candidate’s offer based on a positive drug screen.