Medical Marijuana User Scores Job Bias Win Without a Trial (1)

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By Patrick Dorrian

Bride Brook Health & Rehabilitation Center violated Connecticut law when it rescinded a worker’s job offer based on her status as a medical marijuana user, a federal judge ruled Sept. 5.

The decision by the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut is a rare pretrial win for a worker alleging employment discrimination. Judge Jeffrey Alker Meyer got it right when he found there were no disputed facts preventing the court from awarding summary judgment to Katelin Noffsinger, her attorney told Bloomberg Law Sept. 6.

Federal courts only send a case for trial when there are questions of fact requiring resolution by a jury. When no fact issues exist, courts grant summary judgment in the case. Such motions are usually brought by an employer or other party defending against a lawsuit.

Meyer rejected the facility’s argument that it was exempt from the state’s palliative use law because, as a federal contractor, it’s required to maintain a drug-free workplace. Nothing in the federal Drug Free Workplace Act bars federal contractors from employing someone who uses illegal—let alone lawful—drugs outside of the workplace, he said.

The judge held earlier in the case that Connecticut’s medical marijuana law gives workers the right to sue for job discrimination and that other federal laws, including the Controlled Substances Act, don’t trump that state-law right. The CSA criminalizes marijuana use, possession, sales, cultivation, and distribution.

A trial will be held to determine how much Bride Brook must pay Noffsinger for the discrimination.

Attorney Hank Murray said Noffsinger’s legal team was beginning to work on the issue of her compensatory damages resulting from the facility’s bias. He said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if that trial was held before the end of the year. Murray is with Livingston, Adler, Pulda, Meiklejohn & Kelly P.C. in Hartford, Conn.

Legal Fees, Punitive Damages Not Available, for Now

But Noffsinger won’t be able to collect her attorneys’ fees or punitive damages at that trial, Meyer ruled. He agreed with the facility that Connecticut’s Palliative Use of Marijuana Act doesn’t expressly allow such awards.

And the Connecticut Supreme Court has held that legal fees and punitive damages can’t be awarded absent an express authorization in the law under which the party prevailed, Meyer said.

“It’s probably something the Connecticut General Assembly will need to take up,” he said. He said no decision had been made on whether Noffsigner would challenge that part of Meyer’s ruling.

The judge granted summary judgment against Noffsinger on her claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress under state law. She failed to show an eight-day delay in learning whether her job offer was still good while her drug-test results were confirmed by a third-party vendor supported such a claim, he said.

Murray said the lack of language in PUMA permitting courts to award attorneys’ fees and punitive damages under the statute was likely the product of legislative oversight. Connecticut’s other workplace bias laws all allow for such awards, he said.

Noffsinger has been a registered medical marijuana user since 2015. Her doctor recommended she use the drug to treat her post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from a 2012 car accident. She was recruited away from her prior job by SSC Niantic Operating Co., which runs the Bride Brook facility.

Counsel for SSC Niantic didn’t respond Sept. 6 to Bloomberg Law’s request for comment.

Gregg D. Adler of Livingston, Adler also represents Noffsinger. Thomas C. Blatchley and Shannon M. Walsh of Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani LLP in Glastonbury, Conn., represent SSC Niantic.

The case is Noffsinger v. SSC Niantic Operating Co., 2018 BL 319359, D. Conn., No. 3:16-cv-01938, summary judgment granted on liability 9/5/18.

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