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Medical Marijuana Law Doesn't Protect Fired Wal-Mart Worker, Sixth Circuit Rules

Monday, September 24, 2012

An inventory control manager with a state-issued medical marijuana registry card who was fired by Wal-Mart Stores Inc. after he tested positive for marijuana cannot sue the company for violation of the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act because the law does not regulate private employment, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held 2-1 Sept. 19 (Casias v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., 6th Cir., No. 11-1227, 9/19/12).

The appeals court affirmed a district court's dismissal of Joseph Casias's case. The MMMA prohibits “disciplinary action by a business or occupational or professional licensing board or bureau” against a “qualifying patient.” But the Sixth Circuit opted not to read the term “business” independently, as Casias urged, and instead saw it as modifying “licensing board or bureau.” The MMMA does not refer to employment, the court concluded.

In addition to Wal-Mart, Casias sued his store manager, Troy Estill, a Michigan resident. The appeals court found, however, that Estill was not properly included. He simply communicated the decision of Wal-Mart's corporate office to fire Casias and could not be held personally liable for wrongful discharge under Michigan law, Judge Eric Clay wrote for the Sixth Circuit.

Judge Richard Suhrheinrich joined the opinion. Judge Karen Moore dissented, saying it was unclear that Estill was fraudulently included in the lawsuit because Michigan courts have not ruled on how a corporate employee “participates” in a wrongful discharge.

Worker Issued Medical Marijuana Registry Card.

Michigan lawmakers passed the MMMA in 2008 to protect medical marijuana use. It allows only a “qualifying patient” or a “primary caregiver” to whom the state has issued a registry card to use or administer medical marijuana.

Casias started working at a Wal-Mart store in Battle Creek, Mich., in 2004. After being diagnosed with sinus cancer and an inoperable brain tumor, he suffered ongoing head and neck pain during his employment. On June 15, 2009, he received a medical marijuana registry card from the state, and he began using the drug to manage his pain.

In November 2009, Casias injured his knee at work. He went to the hospital, where he received a standard drug test because of Wal-Mart policy. Prior to the test, he showed his registry card to the testing staff.

The test came back positive for marijuana. Casias showed his shift manager the registry card and told the manager that he never smoked marijuana at work or came to work under the drug's influence. However, Wal-Mart's corporate office in Arkansas ordered store manager Estill to fire Casias because of the failed test, and Estill did so on Nov. 24.

Casias sued the company and Estill for wrongful discharge and violation of the MMMA. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan decided that the MMMA “contains no language stating that it repeals the general rule of at-will employment in Michigan or that it otherwise limits the range of allowable private decisions by Michigan businesses.” The district court said the word “business” in the statute does not regulate private employment actions ( 764 F. Supp. 2d 914, 31 IER Cases 1565 W.D. Mich. (2011); (29 HRR 216, 2/28/11).

Court Finds MMMA Does Not Refer to Employment.

Casias argued that the term “business” in the MMMA is independent, while Wal-Mart countered that it modifies the phrase “licensing board or bureau.” The Sixth Circuit sided with the company's interpretation.

“Based on a plain reading of the statute, the term 'business' is not a stand-alone term as Plaintiff alleges, but rather the word 'business' describes or qualifies the type of 'licensing board or bureau,' ” the court said. “Read in context, and taking into consideration the natural placement of words and phrases in relation to one another, and the proximity of the words used to describe the kind of licensing board or bureau referred to by the statute, it is clear that the statute uses the word 'business' to refer to a 'business' licensing board or bureau, just as it refers to an 'occupational' or 'professional' licensing board or bureau.”

The MMMA does not refer to private employment either expressly or implicitly, the court determined. It noted that courts in California, Montana, and Washington have found that their states' similar medical marijuana laws do not govern private employment actions.

The Sixth Circuit also rejected Casias's argument that his termination violated Michigan public policy. Accepting his interpretation could possibly prevent any company in the state from imposing any discipline on a qualifying patient who uses marijuana in line with the MMMA, the court found.

“Such a broad extension of Michigan law would be at odds with the reasonable expectation that such a far-reaching revision of Michigan law would be expressly enacted,” the court said. “Such a broad extension would also run counter to other Michigan statutes that clearly and expressly impose duties on private employers when the duties imposed fundamentally affect the employment relationship.”

By Elliott T. Dube  


Text of the opinion is available at http://op.bna.com/dlrcases.nsf/r?Open=edue-8yakxl.

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