USE OF MEDICINAL MARIJUANA NOT A FACIALLY UNREASONABLE ACCOMMODATION UNDER MASSACHUSETTS EMPLOYMENT DISCRIMINATION LAW

In a case that may be a precursor of things to come across the country as more and more states “legalize” the medicinal use of marijuana, in a July 17, 2017 decision in Barbuto v. Advantage Sales and Marketing, LLC, SJC 12226, 2017 Mass. LEXIS 504 (July 17, 2017) the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court determined that a plaintiff medical marijuana user had a cause of action for handicap discrimination under a Massachusetts law that prohibits employment discrimination based on, among other things, handicapped status.

Cristina Barbuto, who suffers from Crohn’s disease, was offered an entry-level position with defendant Advantage Sales and Marketing, LLC (“ASM”) in the late summer of 2014, and accepted the offer. After accepting the offer, she was informed that she was required to take a mandatory drug test. Barbuto then told the ASM employee who would be her supervisor that she would test positive for marijuana use because she was a qualifying medical marijuana patient under Massachusetts law whose physician had provided her with a written certification that allowed her to use marijuana for medicinal purposes because of the symptoms associated with her Crohn’s disease. She added that she did not use marijuana daily and would not consume it before work or at work. The supervisor told her that her medicinal use of marijuana should not be a problem but that he would confirm that with others at ASM, which he did and later telephoned her to relay that information.

On September 5, 2014, she submitted a urine sample and on September 11th she started in the ASM training program and completed her first day of work the next day. That evening, Joanna Villacruz, ASM’s human resources representative, and a co-defendant in the lawsuit, telephoned Barbuto to tell her that because she tested positive for marijuana she was being terminated and also told Barbuto that she did not care if her marijuana use was medicinal because “we follow federal law, not state law.”

Barbuto subsequently filed a charge of discrimination against ASM and Villacruz with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (“MCAD”). Which she later withdrew so she could file a complaint in Massachusetts Superior Court. That complaint included six claims: (1) handicap discrimination, in violation of  Massachusetts General Law c. 151B, § 4(16); (2) interference with her right to be protected from handicap discrimination, in violation of 151B, § 4(4A); (3) aiding and abetting ASM in committing handicap discrimination, in violation of 151B, § 4 (5); (4) invasion of privacy, in violation of 214, § 1B; (5) denial of the “right or privilege” to use marijuana lawfully as a registered patient to treat a debilitating medical condition, in violation of the Medical Marijuana Act; and (6) violation of public policy by terminating her for lawfully using marijuana for medicinal purposes. The second and third claims were brought against Villacruz alone and the rest were brought against both ASM and Villacruz. The defendants tried unsuccessfully to remove the case to federal court and then filed a motion to dismiss the complaint in the superior court, which was granted except as to the invasion of privacy claim. At Barbuto’s request, the judge entered a separate and final judgment on the dismissed claims and Barbuto filed a notice of appeal regarding the dismissed claims and the Supreme Judicial Court granted Barbuto’s application for direct appellate review.

Since the claims had not survived the motion to dismiss stage in the trial court, the Supreme Judicial Court’s review was limited to determining whether, taking the claims in the light most favorable to Barbuto, she had adequately stated a claim for relief. The court began its review by noting that, like many other states, Massachusetts had allowed limited possession of marijuana for medical treatment, while acknowledging that possession of marijuana remains illegal under federal law. It then noted that under G.L. c. 151B, § 4(16) it is an “unlawful practice … [f]or any employer … to dismiss from employment or refuse to hire …, because of [her] handicap, any person alleging to be a qualified handicapped person, capable of performing the essential functions of the position involved with reasonable accommodation, unless the employer can demonstrate that the accommodation required to be made to the physical or mental limitations of the person would impose an undue hardship to the employer’s business.” Barbuto alleged that she was a “handicapped person” because she suffered from Crohn’s disease and that she was a “qualified handicapped person” because she could perform the essential functions of her job with a reasonable accommodation to her handicap, that is, with a waiver of ASM’s policy barring anyone from employment who tests positive for marijuana use and the court agreed.

Since the court agreed she was handicapped, to state a claim for handicap discrimination, Barbuto had to show that the accommodation she claimed was necessary was “facially reasonable.” The defendants argued that it was not facially reasonable for two reasons: 1) she was not a “qualified handicapped person” because the only accommodation she sought, continued use of medical marijuana, is a federal crime; and 2) even if she was a qualified handicapped person, she was terminated because she failed a drug test that all employees are required to pass, not because she was handicapped.

As to the first argument, that is, that the requested accommodation was facially unreasonable because marijuana possession is a federal crime, the court stated that if an employee has a debilitating ailment that can be alleviated with medication and the employer had a drug policy that prohibited her taking that medication, the employer would have a duty to engage in an interactive process to determine if there were an equally effective medical alternative that would not violate the policy and if no such equally effective alternative exists, the employer would bear the burden of proving that the employee’s use of the medication would cause an undue hardship to its business in order to justify the refusal to make an exception to the drug policy as an accommodation. It also noted that under Massachusetts law the possession of medical marijuana is legal and if in the opinion of an employee’s physician it is the most effective treatment, an exception to the employer’s drug policy is a facially reasonable accommodation and further stated that the only person at risk of federal prosecution for possession would be the employee not the employer. Finally, it noted that even if the accommodation of the use of medical marijuana was facially unreasonable, ASM owed Barbuto the duty under applicable law to participate in the interactive process before it terminated her and its failure to do so alone would be sufficient to support a claim of handicap discrimination.

As to the defendants’ second argument, that she was fired for failing the drug test, not for being handicapped, the court summarily dealt with that argument by noting “where, as here, the company’s policy prohibiting any use of marijuana is applied against a handicapped employee who is being treated with marijuana by a licensed physician for her medical condition, the termination of the employee for violating that policy effectively denies a handicapped employee the opportunity of a reasonable accommodation, and therefore is appropriately recognized as handicap discrimination.”

Because it determined that Barbuto’s use of medical marijuana under the circumstances of the case was not facially unreasonable, it reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the claims. It should be noted though, that the Supreme Judicial Court did point out that just because the claims survived a motion to dismiss, it did not mean that defendants could not later prove that the accommodation was not reasonable because it would impose an undue burden on its business. However, it is clear that this is an issue that courts will have to grapple with in the states that have determined that medical marijuana use is permitted and it seems at least arguable that in Massachusetts, the use of medical marijuana away from work, may become a reasonable accommodation under certain circumstances.

TEMPORARY WORKER NOT ENTITLED TO LEAVE AS A REASONABLE ACCOMMODATION

The Tenth Circuit recently addressed whether an employer had failed to make a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., (“ADA”) regarding a temporary worker’s request for time off as a reasonable accommodation and although it affirmed the Colorado District Court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendants, it held that the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework was not applicable in a failure-to-accommodate case in the 10th Circuit because such cases do not require the plaintiff to demonstrate discriminatory intent by the employer.

In Punt v. Kelly Services, No. 16-1026, 2017, U.S. App. LEXIS 12046 (10th Cir. July 6, 2017), Kristin Punt, a temporary employee employed by Kelly Services and assigned to GE Controls Solutions, made claims under the ADA, among other statutes, after she was taken off the assignment after missing numerous shifts, allegedly because of a cancer diagnosis.

Punt was an at-will employee of Kelly and at the beginning of her employment there, she signed an employment application stating that the duration of any assignment she accepted depended on the needs of Kelly’s customer and that it could be cancelled at any time by Kelly or the customer. The application also stated that, upon completion of each assignment, she would notify Kelly of her availability for work. GE entered into an agreement with Kelly Services, under which Kelly provided and assigned temporary employees to GE as needed. Under the agreement, GE could ask Kelly to remove any of its temporary employees from their assignment at GE for any reason and Kelly also had the right to cancel any employee’s assignment on its own initiative.

Kelly assigned Paul to the receptionist position at GE, and she worked there from October 24, 2011 through December 5, 2011. When she began the receptionist assignment at GE, she was told she was to work a 40-hour work week, starting at 7:30 a.m. and ending at 4:30 p.m. each day. According to GE, the essential functions of the receptionist job included being “physically present at the lobby/reception desk during business hours” in order to “greet . . . and direct all visitors, including vendors, clients, job candidates, customers, etc.” Despite the 40-hour requirement, however, in the six weeks that she worked as a receptionist at GE, she never worked a full 40-hour work week. She was absent from work on six occasions, was late to work on three occasions and also left work early on three occasions. When Punt was not at work, another Kelly temporary employee, who was assigned to work as an administrative assistant for the general manager of GE, had to take over the receptionist duties as well as her own responsibilities. Punt blamed these absences on a recent breast cancer diagnosis.

On December 5th, Punt had an MRI appointment and that morning, she emailed Erin Wilgus—the Kelly employee who was the point-person for Punt’s temporary assignment to GE—and informed her that she, her husband and doctor had determined that it was in her best interest not to come to work that week at all and also expressed concerned that GE was not willing to work with her, that her medical issues, including a potential surgery, would require her to take time off and that because she felt that GE did not want her to take time off, the assignment might not be a good fit. After that, several emails were exchanged between Punt and Wilgus because Wilgus was trying to determine whether Punt was going to go to GE the next day. Ultimately, on that same date, GE’s general manager and HR director contacted Wilgus to end Punt’s assignment, telling Wilgus that Punt was not showing up for work and that GE “needed an employee that’s going to be able to show up and fulfill the needs of the position.” Wilgus then contacted Punt to inform her that her temporary assignment with GE had been terminated. After that, Punt never contacted Kelly to ask for another assignment and Kelly did not contact Punt with any additional job offers. In 2014, Punt filed a lawsuit against both GE and Kelly, raising both a somewhat ill-defined claim of disability discrimination under the ADA, which Punt claimed was a failure-to-accommodate claim, and a claim of genetic information discrimination under the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000ff et seq., (“GINA”) because she had allegedly told a GE employee that she had a family history of breast cancer. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants on both claims.

The district court evaluated the ADA disability claim as a disparate treatment claim, subject to the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting analysis, because it determined Punt had not presented direct evidence of a discriminatory motivation on the part of the defendants. Using the McDonnell Douglas analysis, the court held that Punt had failed either to establish a prima facie case of disability discrimination or to show that defendants’ legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for her termination was pretextual.

The appeals court began its review by noting that the district court incorrectly concluded that what matters for determining the type of claim at issue in an ADA case is not the type of claim that is pleaded in a complaint, but rather the type of evidence that is presented to support the claim. The appeals court stated that this conclusion was based on a fundamental misunderstanding about the distinctions between different types of ADA claims and the evidence that must be presented to support them. The court stated that while in general, under the ADA there must be a nexus between the disability and the adverse employment action, usually proven by direct or indirect evidence of discriminatory intent, a failure-to-accommodate claim, does not require such a showing because any failure to provide reasonable accommodations for a disability is necessarily “because of a disability” and no proof of a “‘particularized discriminatory animus’ is required.” In other words, the court determined that the only reason an accommodation is required is because of a disability, and thus the failure to provide a reasonable accommodation to a qualified employee with a disability is inherently based on that disability. It then opined that failure-to-accommodate cases should not be classified either as direct-evidence cases or as McDonnell Douglas circumstantial evidence cases, but rather as a separate category of cases that require no evidence of discriminatory intent in any form.

As to Punt’s actual claim, the court stated that while Punt’s complaint was “far from a model of clarity on this point,” the ADA claim looked much more like a failure-to-accommodate claim than a disparate-treatment claim and that the record revealed that Punt and counsel for both GE and Kelly focused extensively in discovery on questions of whether Punt’s request for time off was a request for a reasonable accommodation, and no one ever attempted to elicit any evidence to support or defeat a disparate-treatment theory. Because it was a failure-to-accommodate claim, the court held that it should have been evaluated under the 10th Circuit’s failure to accommodate test, which requires the plaintiff to show that “(1) she is disabled; (2) she is ‘otherwise qualified’; and (3) she requested a plausibly reasonable accommodation,” which then requires the employer to show evidence that either (1) conclusively rebuts one or more elements of plaintiff’s prima facie case or (2) establishing an affirmative defense, such as undue hardship or one of the other affirmative defenses available to the employer.”

The court “began and ended” its analysis by examining whether or not Punt had “requested a plausibly reasonable accommodation,” stating that determination of whether a requested accommodation is reasonable “must be made on the facts of each case taking into consideration the particular individual’s disability and employment position.” It concluded that Punt’s request was not plausibly reasonable on its face because “an employee’s request to be relieved from an essential function of her position is not, as a matter of law, a reasonable or even plausible accommodation” and therefore, affirmed the district court’s decision. It also affirmed the district court’s decision on the GINA claim because it determined that Punt had offered no evidence to support the claim beyond conclusory allegations.