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RI Superior Court Finds Implied Private Cause of Action Within the State’s Medical Marijuana Law for Adverse Action Taken Against Qualifying Patients & Recognizes that the RICRA Provides Similar Protections for Qualifying Patients Faced with Workplace Discrimination

Posted in Employment Litigation, Litigation Trends, Massachusetts Courts, Rhode Island Courts

This article is Part Three of our Medical Marijuana and the Workplace: Recent Decisions from New England Courts Provide Significant Protections to Medical Marijuana Patient Employees Five-Part Series.

 

A few months before the Barbuto opinion, see Parts 1 and 2, a Rhode Island court issued a summary judgment ruling making it easier for employees to claim employment discrimination resulting from their status as qualifying medical marijuana patients.  See Callaghan v. Darlington Fabrics Corp., 2017 WL 2321181 (R.I. Super. May 23, 2017).  Judge Licht of the Rhode Island Superior Court issued an opinion in which he discussed the intent of Rhode Island’s General Assembly in enacting the Edward O. Hawkins and Thomas C. Slater Medical Marijuana Act, G.L. 1956 §§ 21-28.6-1 et seq. (the “Hawkins-Slater Act” or “RIMMA”).  Plaintiff Christine Callaghan alleged that because she held a medical marijuana card, Defendants Darlington Fabrics Corporation (“Darlington”) and the Moore Company (collectively, “Defendants”) had discriminated against her with respect to hiring for an internship position.  See id. at 1.

The material facts forming the foundation of Ms. Callaghan’s claims were not disputed by the parties.  Plaintiff needed to complete an internship to fulfill the requirements of her Master’s program at the University of Rhode Island.  Id.  Ms. Callaghan’s professor directed her to Darlington, a division of Moore Company, where Plaintiff met with Darlington’s Human Resources Coordinator, Karen McGrath, on June 30, 2014.  Id.  After Plaintiff was required to sign a Fitness for Duty Statement, which acknowledged that she would have to take a drug test before being hired, Plaintiff advised Ms. McGrath that she held a medical marijuana card authorized by the RIMMA.  Id.

During a conference call on July 2, 2014, Ms. McGrath and a colleague asked Plaintiff whether she was currently using medical marijuana.  Plaintiff responded affirmatively, explained that she would test positive for marijuana, and informed Darlington’s employees that she was allergic to other pain medications and would neither use nor bring medical marijuana with her into the workplace.  Plaintiff did not receive an internship.

Plaintiff then filed a three-count complaint on November 12, 2014. Count I sought a declaration that the “failure to hire a prospective employee based on his or her status as a medical marijuana card holder and user is a violation of the” Hawkins-Slater Act.  See id. at 2 Counts II and III sought damages: Count II alleged Defendants’ conduct violated the Rhode Island Civil Rights Act (RICRA), G.L. 1956 §§ 42-112-1 et seq.; and Count III alleged violations of the Hawkins-Slater Act due to employment discrimination.  See id.   Defendant moved for summary judgment on all three counts under Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure 56.  Plaintiff filed a cross-motion for summary judgment on Counts I and III, and otherwise opposed Defendants’ motion on Count II.  See id. at 1.

The Court first endeavored to determine whether § 21-28.6-4(d) of the RIMMA, which provides that “No school, employer, or landlord may refuse to enroll, employ, or lease to, or otherwise penalize, a person solely for his or her status as a cardholder,” creates an implied private cause of action.  In doing so, the Court declared that it was necessary to ascertain whether the Rhode Island legislature intended for this provision to be enforceable.  See id. at 2.  After reviewing contradictory canons of statutory construction and the Rhode Island Supreme Court’s reluctance to imply private rights of action (id. at 3-8), the Court ultimately determined that the General Assembly expected § 21-28.6-4(d) to be enforced, and that an implied private right of action existed.  See id. at 8.

The Court then rejected an argument by Defendants that they refused to hire Ms. Callaghan not because of her status as a cardholder, but because she was unable to pass a mandatory pre-service drug test.  The Court noted that “the General Assembly explicitly instructed the courts to construe the Hawkins-Slater Act broadly.”  Id. (citing § 21-28.6-13).  The Court also reviewed several other provisions of the RIMMA and determined that the “Act provides that employers cannot refuse to employ a person for his or her status as a cardholder, and that that right may not be denied for the medical use of marijuana..”  Defendants also argued that their manufacturing facility contained dangerous equipment and “couch[ed] their concern as one of workplace safety.”  Id.  The Court concluded that safety concerns did not justify a refusal to hire and could be addressed later, referring to the RIMMA’s express statement that it “shall not permit “[a]ny person to undertake any task under the influence of marijuana, when doing so would constitute negligence or professional malpractice.” Sec. 21-28.6-7(a)(1).  Ergo, the Court opined, “[i]f an employee came to work under the influence, and unable to perform his or her duties in a competent manner, the employer would thus not have to tolerate such behavior.”  Id.

After addressing the claims arising under the RIMMA, the Court reviewed the claim sounding in unlawful discrimination under RICRA.  The Court first stated that RICRA is “expansive, and provides broad protection against all forms of discrimination in all phases of employment.”  See id. at 10. (Internal citation and quotation omitted).  The Court also recognized that “[i]n order to qualify for . . . a card [under RIMMA], Plaintiff must have a “debilitating medical condition.”  See id. (citing § 21-28.6-3(10)).    Defendants had argued that drug use is not a disability as defined by RICRA, whose scope they argued should be dictated by the federal American with Disabilities Act.  The Court determined that if Ms. Callaghan had a debilitating medical condition under the RIMMA, then ipso facto, she must also be disabled within the meaning of the RICRA:

A “debilitating medical condition” under the Hawkins-Slater Act must necessarily “substantially limit[] one or more … major life activities” under § 42-87-1. The examples of conditions which automatically qualify as debilitating medical conditions are severe: cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, and Hepatitis C. Sec. 21-28.6-3(3)(i) (2013).7 All of these diseases impair “the operation of a major bodily function,” such as the immune system, normal cell growth, or the like. See § 42-87-1(5). Further, all of the symptoms which would qualify a cardholder are also severe: “wasting syndrome; severe, debilitating, chronic pain; severe nausea; seizures; … or severe and persistent muscle spasms.” Sec. 21-28.6-3(3)(ii) (2013).8 Again, these would all naturally substantially limit a major life activity. Even just a plain reading of the terms, without reference to the definitions, makes it clear—“debilitating medical condition” connotes disability on its own. See Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 296 (Frederick C. Mish et al. eds., 10th ed. 2001) (equating debilitate with weaken or enfeeble).  Thus, Plaintiff is disabled under the terms of RICRA. Her status as a medical marijuana cardholder signaled that to Defendants—she could not have obtained such a card without a debilitating medical condition that would cause her to be disabled.

 

Id. at 11.  Thus, the Court held that Plaintiff also stated a claim for relief under RICRA.  See Id. at 13.

The result of the decisions in Barbuto and Callaghan is that medical marijuana patients may be allowed to file claims for workplace discrimination under the laws of Massachusetts and Rhode Island.  This is a stark divergence from earlier decisions in other states, and potentially opens the doors of the courthouse to qualifying patients that have incurred adverse actions from their employer as a result of their use of medical marijuana.  As a result of these rulings, we are likely to see a proliferation of cases brought in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.  Employers should not only prepare for this litigation, but also coordinate with employment counsel to adapt policies and procedures to reduce the risk of workplace discrimination claims.