Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Joseph Casias' Lawsuit Against Wal-Mart In Michigan, Triggered By Firing For Positive Drug Screen, Exposes Contradictory Medical Marijuana Law

An ambiguous and contradictory medical marijuana law in Michigan will be the subject of an upcoming court battle between Wal-Mart and Joseph Casias, a medical marijuana user who is a former Wal-Mart employee. The problem is that Casias was fired from his Wal-Mart job because he tested positive for marijuana on a drug screen. This story is of interest to anyone who lives in a state which allows "at-will employment".

According to the Detroit Free Press, Michigan's medical marijuana law, in addition to protecting a user against criminal justice, also states that a person shall not be subject to "disciplinary action by a business or occupational or professional licensing board of bureau" for using marijuana in accordance with the act. But on the other hand, it also says the law doesn't require an employer to accommodate the ingestion of the drug in the workplace or an employee working while under the influence under disability rules.

And it's because of the latter sentence that Joseph Casias is now a former Wal-Mart employee. As reported by WZZM Channel 13 in March 2010, Casias, a father of two, has sinus cancer and an inoperable brain tumor. At his doctor's recommendation, Casias began using medical marijuana to ease the pain. He was given an official card by the state to show authorization. During this time, Casias was working at the Wal-Mart store in Battle Creek, Michigan; he was selected as the store's Associate of the Year in 2008. But in November 2009, Casias sprained his knee at work. During the routine drug screening that follows all workplace injuries, marijuana was detected. Although Casias showed Wal-Mart managers his state medical marijuana card, he was fired anyway. He said he never reported to work actually high; during his five years at WalMart, Casias says he went to work every day, determined to be the best. WOOD Channel 8 news video embedded below:

Casias then began collecting unemployment benefits. But in March 2010, Wal-Mart decided to challenge his eligibility for benefits, claiming that termination for a positive drug screen constitutes firing for cause. At the time, Wal-Mart spokesman Greg Rossiter explained the company policy, which states: "In states, such as Michigan, where prescriptions for marijuana can be obtained, an employer can still enforce a policy that requires termination of employment following a positive drug screen. We believe our policy complies with the law and we support decisions based on the policy." Rossiter also said he sympathized with Casias, but then explained, "Like other companies, we have to consider the overall safety of our customers and our associates, including Mr. Casias, when making a difficult decision like this.”

It was only after Wal-Mart challenged his unemployment eligibility that Casias decided to seek legal redress, filing a lawsuit in Calhoun County Circuit Court. He will be assisted by the ACLU. Casias wants to be rehired and is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, and hopes that his case will help protect some of the 20,000-plus other medical marijuana patients across Michigan. But legal precedent set in two other states does not favor him. In April 2010, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that workers who use medical marijuana can still be fired for drug use because the state law had to yield to federal laws controlling illegal drugs. And in 2008, it was reported that the California Supreme Court also ruled in favor of employers, saying workers can be fired, even if they are using medical marijuana legally. But Dan Korobkin, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Michigan, said he believes Michigan's law clearly protects patients from being disciplined by their employers.

Analysis: This is an extremely tough call. It's bad news that Casias was abruptly fired for this despite his outstanding work record and the fact that he wasn't using marijuana recreationally. But I can relate to Wal-Mart's position; if Casias had injured someone on the job, traces of marijuana in Casias' system could increase the company's liability exponentially. But since Michigan is an at-will employment state, employers can fire a worker for any reason unless it falls under a federally protected category such as race, gender and religion. So the question will be whether or not to add disability, and to require an employer to make "reasonable accommodation" for medical marijuana users as a disability.

Since Casias was first hired in 2003, and didn't start using medical marijuana until 2008, the question wouldn't have arisen during the hiring process.

1 comment:

  1. Very Very interesting!

    Keep up the great work!!

    Common Cents