New Mexico Employer Need Not Accommodate Medical Marijuana Use

An employer need not accommodate a New Mexico employee’s use of medical marijuana, even when that use is sanctioned under the state’s Compassionate Use Act (“CUA”), held a federal district court judge recently in Garcia v. Tractor Supply Co., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3494 (D. N.M., Jan. 7, 2016). The judge also was not persuaded that the plaintiff had stated a cause of action under the state’s Human Rights Act (“HRA”), which generally requires an employer to make reasonable accommodation for “serious medical conditions.” The court indicated that nothing in the text or history of the CUA suggested that the law addressed the respective rights and obligations of employers and employees. Moreover, the court said the HRA could not be read so as to require employers to accommodate the use of illegal drugs.

Background

Garcia applied for a team leader position with Tractor Supply. During his initial employment interview, Garcia advised the hiring manager both of his diagnosis of HIV/AIDS and his participation in New Mexico’s Medical Cannabis Program. Garcia was hired and subsequently reported to a testing facility to undergo the drug testing required of all new hires. The results of the drug test indicated that Garcia had tested positive for cannabis metabolites. Tractor Supply’s hiring manager discharged Garcia a few days later.

After exhausting his administrative remedies with the New Mexico Labor Relations Division/Human Rights Bureau, Garcia filed suit with a state trial court, alleging that Tractor Supply terminated him based on his serious medical condition and his physicians’ recommendation to use medical marijuana. Tractor Supply timely removed the case to federal court and filed a motion to dismiss.

The district court judge initially observed that case concerned an issue of first impression in the District of New Mexico. Judge Johnson noted that while some states, such as Connecticut and Delaware, included within their medical marijuana acts affirmative requirements mandating that employers accommodate medical marijuana cardholders, New Mexico’s CUA had no such affirmative language. The CUA also provided no cause of action, as acknowledged by Garcia.

Testing Positive For Marijuana Was Not Caused by Garcia’s HIV/AIDS

Tractor Supply argued that the CUA offered users of medical marijuana limited immunity against state criminal prosecution and imposed no duty on employers to accommodate the use of medical marijuana. Citing two district court decisions from Colorado, Judge Johnson indicated that Garcia had not been terminated because of or on the basis of his serious medical condition. Testing positive for marijuana was not caused by Garcia’s serious medical condition (HIV/AIDS, nor could testing positive for marijuana be seen as conduct that resulted from his serious medical condition. Using marijuana is not a manifestation of HIV/AIDS.

Judge Johnson acknowledged that Garcia’s strongest argument centered on several decisions by the New Mexico Court of Appeals that the state’s Workers’ Compensation Act authorizes reimbursement for medical marijuana (see my earlier posts re: Vialpando v. Ben’s Auto. Servs. and Maez v. Riley Industrial). In those decisions, the New Mexico Court pointed to “equivocal statements about state laws allowing marijuana use” made by the Department of Justice. Garcia inferred from that discussion that it was plausible that New Mexico courts would also find medical marijuana to be a reasonable accommodation under the New Mexico Human Rights Act.

Judge Johnson was unpersuaded for two reasons. First, he indicated that reliance on an enforcement policy of the United States Attorney General is not law, and instead, is merely “an ephemeral policy” that may change under a different President or different Attorney General. Second, and more importantly, said the judge, there was a fundamental difference between requiring an insurance carrier to reimburse medical treatments that had been approved by a physician in a regulated system, such as medical marijuana, and requiring that a national employer permit and accommodate an individual’s marijuana use that was illegal under federal law.

State Medical Marijuana Laws May Not Conflict With Controlled Substances Act, But …?

Finally, Judge Johnson indicated that state medical marijuana laws that provide limited state-law immunity might not conflict with the CSA. Here, however, Garcia had not merely sought state-law immunity for his marijuana use. Rather, he sought the state affirmatively to require Tractor Supply to accommodate his marijuana use. To require Tractor Supply to accommodate Garcia’s illegal drug use would mandate that Tractor Supply permit the very conduct the CSA proscribed.

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