In Chance v. Kraft Heinz Foods Company, a Delaware state court recently held that a private cause of action exists under the state's Medical Marijuana Act (DMMA) and confirmed that the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) does not preempt the DMMA. The court's holdings add to a recent trend of employee-friendly cases dealing with employment claims brought by medical marijuana users.
Jeremiah Chance was employed by Kraft Heinz as a Yard Equipment Operator. He obtained a medical marijuana card in 2016 under the DMMA to treat ongoing back issues. In August 2016, Chance was operating a shuttle wagon in Kraft Heinz's railroad yard when it derailed. Kraft Heinz requested that he undergo a drug test, which was inconclusive. A second test came back positive for marijuana. Although Chance told the Medical Review Officer that he possessed a medical marijuana card, Kraft Heinz terminated him for failing the drug test.
Chance sued Kraft Heinz, alleging among other claims, that it violated the DMMA's anti-discrimination provisions, that he was wrongfully terminated under a public policy protecting medical marijuana users, and that Kraft Heinz discriminated against him under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and state disability law. Kraft Heinz moved to dismiss Chance's claims, arguing that the DMMA is preempted by the CSA- which prohibits the use and sale of marijuana- and arguing that the DMMA does not provide any public policy grounds to support a common law wrongful termination claim.
In a case of first impression in Delaware, the court first held that the anti-discrimination provision of the DMMA is not pre-empted by the CSA. DMMA's anti-discrimination provision 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 ... [t]he person's status as a cardholder; or... [a] registered qualifying patient's positive drug test for marijuana." In finding no preemption, the court relied heavily on the reasoning of other courts which recently dealt with the same preemption argument, including Connecticut's Noffsinger v. SSC Niantic Operating Co (2017; 2018) and Rhode Island's Callaghan v. Darlington Fabrics Corp. (2017) opinions. Agreeing with Noffsinger's and Callaghan's reasoning, the court concluded that while the CSA classifies marijuana as a prohibited substance and makes no exceptions for its medical use, it does not make it illegal to employ someone who uses marijuana nor does it "regulate employment matters within this context." Further, the court found that the DMMA does not require employers to participate in an illegal activity. Rather, the DMMA prohibits employers from discriminating against medical marijuana users. The court noted that the cases cited by Kraft Heinz in support of its preemption argument are distinguishable because most medical marijuana statutes do not contain clear statutory protections protecting medical marijuana users' employment, which has "led to the dismissal of multiple claims of employees who were discharged based upon their medical marijuana use, even absent evidence that their use affected their work performance." Unlike the statutory provisions in those cases, the DMMA contains an express anti-discrimination provision.
In another key holding, the court also held that a private right of action was implied in the DMMA because an employee would otherwise have no recourse for discrimination under the law. The court noted that the DMMA's anti-discrimination provision demonstrates a legislative intent to remedy the problem of discrimination based upon one's marijuana cardholder status. Again, borrowing the reasoning of Callaghan and Noffsinger, which have found private causes of action under state medical marijuana laws, the court held that the DMMA would be "devoid of any purpose" if no private right of action existed.
Despite its finding that the DMMA provides for a private cause of action, the court dismissed Chance's common law wrongful termination claim. The court noted that the public policy against discrimination toward medical marijuana cardholders is not so firmly rooted nor does it address a "systemic social problem" such that it is appropriate for a victim to bring a wrongful termination claim based upon it. Further, Chance's ADA and state disability claims were also dismissed because they were not timely filed and because Chance did not initially allege he was terminated due to a disability, but rather that he was terminated due to his medical marijuana use.
IMPLICATION FOR EMPLOYERS
Delaware joins a growing number of states that have rejected preemption arguments made by employers and have permitted discrimination claims to proceed based on state medical marijuana laws. As we noted earlier, employers must pay close attention to the marijuana laws impacting their workplaces and the way those laws have been construed by courts in the states in which they operate, as well as other states. Chance borrowed heavily from the reasoning in Callaghan and Noffsinger, and it is likely that future courts deciding similar issues for the first time will look to the reasoning of other courts with similar marijuana laws, in interpreting their own.
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