drug testing, Brandon Coats, DISH Network, medical marijuana

Even Legal Medical Marijuana Use is a Fireable Offense

Brandon Coats is a 34-year-old quadriplegic from Colorado who was fired from DISH Network in 2010 for failing a company-issued drug test.  Coats is paralyzed over 80% of his body due to an automobile accident he was in at the age of sixteen.  In 2007, he was hired by DISH as a customer service representative; over the next three years, the traditional prescription medications he used to control pain and involuntary muscle spasms began to fail.  His doctors then recommended that he add marijuana to his medication regimen; Coats applied for and received his state-issued license for medical marijuana in August of 2009.

In May of 2010, Coats was ordered by his employer to take a random drug test.  He informed the test administrator that he was a medical marijuana patient, but was told that his status as a patient did not matter.  According to his original complaint, he was told, “That is just Colorado state law and does not apply to your job.”  When he subsequently tested positive for THC, the psychoactive element in marijuana, he was summarily fired for violating DISH’s zero-tolerance drug policy.

Coats believed he had some recourse against the decision to terminate his employment under Colorado’s Lawful Off-Duty Activities Statue, which essentially states that an employee cannot be fired for engaging in legal activities while off the clock.  He filed a lawsuit and took his former employer to court, but in February of 2012 a District judge granted DISH’s motion to dismiss, citing earlier cases in which employees were fired for failing drug tests for THC.  Eventually, the case landed in the Colorado Court of Appeals, where it also sided with DISH in a 2-1 decision.  The majority decision, written by Judge Janice Davidson, highlighted the fact that, since marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, the Off-Duty Statute does not apply in this case.

Coats and his attorneys then appealed the case all the way up to Colorado’s Supreme Court, which ultimately upheld the ruling of the lower appellate court – Coats’ firing stands.

The CO Supreme Court’s decision has been met with mixed reviews.  Business owners in states with legalized marijuana are reacting positively, safe in the knowledge that precedent is on their side if they decide to maintain their pre-legalization drug policies.  Meanwhile, marijuana advocates see the ruling as a major setback to their work they have done to further legalization in Colorado and other states.

Interestingly, even the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not seem to support the use of medical marijuana in states where that is legal:

Federal case law thus far has supported an employer’s right to discharge an employee for marijuana use, even if that employee were disabled according to the ADA.  The ADA excludes from its protection “any employee or applicant who is currently engaging in the illegal use of drugs”.  The ADA recognizes an employer’s right to test for drug use and to prohibit illegal drug use in the workplace. Again, the federal government’s refusal to declassify marijuana as a Schedule I drug makes it likely that ADA protection will not be afforded to employees terminated for medical marijuana use.

The bottom line appears to be that, until marijuana is declassified as a Schedule I drug and policy changes on a federal level, employees in states where marijuana is legal must remain aware that using the drug legally per the laws of the state they live in will not necessarily protect them from consequences in the workplace.

At The Cedalius Group, the employment background screening provider you can trust, we are paying close attention to the changes regarding marijuana in this country at both the state and federal levels.  It is our intention to bring our clients the most accurate and up-to-date information, so that they can shape their policies and procedures accordingly.  If you have questions about your drug testing policy, please give us a call at 404.963.9772 or contact us online.

The Cedalius Group offers insight into the background screening industry for educational purposes.  We always recommend you consult with your legal counsel to determine practices that best suit your business needs.