Denying Unemployment Benefits for Failing to Pass a Drug Test Solely Due to Lawful Medical Marijuana Usage Constitutes a Penalty Under the MMMA
On October 23, 2014, the Michigan Court of Appeals held that three unemployed claimants were entitled to unemployment benefits after they were terminated for failure to pass a drug test as a result of their lawful marijuana usage under the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act (MMMA).
The Michigan Court of Appeals consolidated three different circuit court cases involving unemployment claimants who were terminated for failure to pass a drug test mandated by their various employers. All three claimants were holders of valid, medical marijuana cards and failed their drug tests as a result of their lawful medical marijuana usage. The parties disputed whether the claimants were entitled to unemployment benefits given the employers' drug-free policies and the claimants' lawful medical marijuana usage. The Court held that denying the claimants unemployment benefits because they tested positive on a drug test due to their lawful medical marijuana use constituted an unlawful penalty under the MMMA.
I. The Michigan Employment Security Act (MESA) and the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act (MMMA)
Under MESA, individuals must be qualified to receive unemployment benefits. An individual may be disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits under several circumstances, including if he or she:
- "was suspended or discharged for misconduct connected with the individuals work or for intoxication while at work" or
- "was discharged for illegally ingesting, injecting, inhaling or possessing a controlled substance on the premises of the employer; refusing to submit to a drug test that was required to be administered in a nondiscriminatory manner; or testing positive on a drug test, if the test was administered in a nondiscriminatory manner . . ."
The MMMA grants lawful medical marijuana users broad immunity from arrest, prosecution or penalty for their lawful use of medical marijuana. However, the MMMA does not permit anyone who uses medical marijuana either to undertake any task that would constitute negligence or professional negligence or to operate, navigate or be in control of any type of motor vehicle, aircraft, or motorboat while under the influence of marijuana. The MMMA also does not require an employer to accommodate the use of marijuana in the workplace or to allow an employee to work while under the influence of marijuana.
II. The Court's Decision
The Court of Appeals found that all three claimants met the threshold requirements for unemployment benefits under MESA. It also found that although the claimants may have been technically disqualified from unemployment benefits under the provisions of MESA because they tested positive on a drug test, the MMMA preempts MESA.
The Court rejected the Defendants' arguments (1) that the failed drug tests and the claimants' medical marijuana usage should be treated separately, (2) that granting the benefits would amount to requiring employers to accommodate an employee's use of marijuana in the workplace or working while under the influence of marijuana, and (3) that the MMMA's immunity clause does not apply to private employers.
The Court found that but for the claimants' medical marijuana usage, the claimants would have passed the drug test and would not have been deemed to have engaged in any misconduct. It also found that there was no evidence that the claimants used the medical marijuana in the workplace or worked under the influence of marijuana. Further, the Court found that the MMMA applies to these cases because the claimants were denied unemployment benefits by a state actor - the Michigan Compensation Appellate Commission (MCAC). The Court explicitly stated that the employer's conduct was not at issue in this case.
The Court ultimately held that denying unemployment benefits to these claimants because they failed mandated drug tests solely as a result of their lawful medical marijuana usage constituted an unlawful penalty under the MMMA. The denial imposed a forfeiture on claimants solely because of their lawful medical marijuana usage in violation of the MMMA's provisions.
In light of this case, employers should keep in mind that the MMMA preempts MESA and provides broad immunity that protects lawful medical marijuana users from penalty as a result of their lawful marijuana use. Accordingly, a lawful medical marijuana user cannot be denied unemployment benefits based on a failed drug test if there is no evidence that the claimant violated MESA in a manner unrelated to the claimant's lawful medical marijuana usage or evidence that the claimant violated the MMMA so as to deprive him or her of the MMMA's protection.
For more information on this matter, please contact Nitya S. Lohitsa at (313) 965-8260 or firstname.lastname@example.org or another member of Clark Hill's Labor and Employment Practice Group.