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Employment protections for medical cannabis patients in New Jersey could soon be strengthened following an important win for the plaintiff in an employment discrimination lawsuit filed against Amazon last year -- D.J.C. v. Amazon Com DEDC, LLC, et al. The federal court ruling, issued earlier this month, will allow the lawsuit to proceed in state court, paving the way for a more employee-friendly resolution of the case.
The plaintiff who filed the lawsuit, D.J.C., worked for Amazon at its Edison, New Jersey warehouse until he was fired in July 2018 for testing positive for cannabis on a random drug test. According to D.J.C., he was fired and refused any accommodations even though he explained that he was lawfully registered as a medical marijuana patient in the State of New Jersey and that he was taking cannabis to treat his anxiety and panic disorder as permitted under state law. D.J.C. filed this lawsuit against Amazon in state court in October 2019, alleging, among other things, that his termination and Amazon’s failure to accommodate him violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”) and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Amazon later had the lawsuit transferred from state court to federal court. As a procedural matter, federal courts generally have exclusive authority to decide cases that: (i) require application and analysis of federal law; and/or (ii) are filed by a plaintiff(s) residing in a different state(s) from all defendants. At the time of this lawsuit’s transfer to federal court, both qualifications had been met: D.J.C.’s complaint referenced Amazon’s alleged violation of federal law (the ADA), and the lawsuit was between D.J.C. the plaintiff who is a citizen of New Jersey, on the one hand, and Amazon, the defendant that is categorized as a “citizen” of Washington and Delaware, on the other hand.
The new ruling in this lawsuit follows D.J.C.’s request to amend his complaint. Specifically, D.J.C. asked the court to allow him to add a new defendant to the lawsuit -- his former supervising manager at Amazon who is also a resident of New Jersey, and to remove all references to Amazon’s ADA violation from his complaint. Because these amendments, if granted, would deprive the federal court of its authority to decide the case (i.e., the lawsuit would no longer concern issues of federal law or parties from different states), D.J.C. also asked that the case be sent back to state court. On April 9, 2020, the court issued a decision granting both requests, sending the case back to state court.<1
This procedural win is a major victory for D.J.C. and medical cannabis patients across the state as the lawsuit against Amazon has a greater likelihood of success in state court than it would in federal court. A federal court would almost certainly rule against D.J.C. because cannabis remains illegal under federal law, and federal law does not provide anti-discrimination and/or employment protections for employees using cannabis in accordance with their state’s laws. Furthermore, New Jersey law, which would hold less weight in a federal court, is becoming increasingly more favorable for medical cannabis patients in the employee discrimination context. Just last month, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a decision, in a case called Wild v. Carriage Funeral Holdings, Inc., concluding, for the first time, that because medical cannabis is legal under state law, medical cannabis patients can sue their employers for disability discrimination and failure to reasonably accommodate the need for medical cannabis under NJLAD -- New Jersey’s longstanding anti- discrimination statute.
The significance of the Wild ruling cannot be overstated. Prior to Wild, employees fired for cannabis use outside the workplace had little legal recourse against their employers under New Jersey law. It wasn’t until July 2019 that New Jersey passed the Jake Honig Compassionate Use Medical Cannabis Act (“Honig Act”), which prohibits employers from taking certain adverse employment actions against employees solely because they registered as medical cannabis patients, and sets forth certain restrictions on drug testing procedures. However, contrary to NJLAD, which requires employers to reasonably accommodate an employee’s need for lawful medical treatment (which could, in certain circumstances, include the need for medical cannabis), the Honig Act does not require any such accommodations. And although requiring employers to provide employees and prospective candidates three days following a positive cannabis test result to provide a medical explanation for their cannabis use, nothing in the Honig Act expressly requires an employer to accept an employee’s explanation. Nor is it clear whether the Honig Act applies retroactively to employee terminations that occurred prior to the law’s recent passage. Finally, unlike NJLAD, the Honig Act doesn’t provide plaintiffs the right to sue for additional damages known as “punitive damages” or for attorneys’ fees. Thus, by extending application of NJLAD to medical cannabis patients, the Wild ruling has importantly expanded employment protections for these patients who otherwise had very few remedies under the Honig Act (and none before that).
Since the Wild ruling would have little, if any, impact outside of state court, the April 9th decision sending D.J.C.’s lawsuit back to state court sets the stage for a final determination that is more likely to be in D.J.C.’s favor, with the added potential of expanding and/or clarifying current employment protections for medical cannabis patients across New Jersey. Even after Wild, New Jersey employment protections are far from clear or sufficient as the law does not specify, for example, the kinds of accommodations that would satisfy the standards of NJLAD in the cannabis context or the particular circumstances under which accommodations must be given. With D.J.C.’s lawsuit now being decided in state court, medical cannabis patients in New Jersey could soon have answers to these and other important questions still unanswered. D.J.C.’s procedural victory, therefore, provides an important lesson for plaintiffs in these employment discrimination cases (in New Jersey as well as other state legal jurisdictions where employment protections apply to cannabis use) -- the court in which a lawsuit is decided may be just as important, if not more so, as the factual circumstances of the case. In order to prevent improper courts from deciding cannabis-related employment discrimination lawsuits, medical cannabis patients should always carefully consult with their attorneys about the parties and allegedly-violated laws to be included in their complaints.
Fatima V. Afia is an Associate at Hiller, PC (www.hillerpc.com), a boutique litigation firm with a track record for success in various practice areas including cannabis law, land use and zoning, disability insurance law, and business and corporate law.