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California Supreme Court Rules That Employers Have No Duty to Accommodate Medical Marijuana Use

February 13, 2008

In a 5-2 decision, the California Supreme Court has ruled that employers can refuse to hire applicants and can terminate employees who use illegal drugs, including those who use marijuana for medical purposes.  Ross v. RagingWire Telecommunications, Inc., 70 Cal.Rptr.3d 382 (January 24, 2008).  This case is significant because it makes clear that employers are not required to accommodate one’s use of “medical marijuana” under California law.

The plaintiff, Gary Ross, was fired by defendant RagingWire Telecommunications, Inc. after a pre-employment drug test revealed his marijuana use.  Plaintiff began using marijuana on his physician’s recommendation because of back injuries he sustained while serving in the U.S. Air Force.  Despite plaintiff’s disclosure of his medical marijuana use, his employer terminated his employment on that basis.

Plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the employer, alleging disability discrimination under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act and wrongful termination in violation of public policy.  The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s order dismissing plaintiff’s claims, and the California Supreme Court thereafter granted review.

The Supreme Court affirmed the lower courts’ decisions.  The Court held that the FEHA does not require employers to accommodate marijuana use because marijuana, even if prescribed by a physician, remains an illegal drug under federal law.  The Court explained that California’s Compassionate Use Act of 1996 provides immunity to criminal liability to a person who uses marijuana for medical purposes.  In rejecting the plaintiff’s wrongful termination claim, the Court held that the Compassionate Use Act does not “articulate any policy concerning marijuana in the employment context, let alone a fundamental public policy requiring employers to accommodate marijuana use by employees.”

In response to the Court’s decision, California Assemblyman Mark Leno said he intends to introduce legislation to protect the employment rights of medical marijuana users.

If you have any questions about this issue, please contact any of our attorneys based in our San Francisco or Los Angeles offices.