Pennsylvania Court Finds Private Right of Action for Employees Under State’s Medical Marijuana Law

Following the lead of other courts around the country, a Pennsylvania state court has held that employees can bring lawsuits against their employers asserting claims under the state’s medical marijuana law. Palmiter v. Commonwealth Health Systems, Inc., 19-CV-1315 (Lackawanna County Nov. 22, 2019).

The Pennsylvania’s Medical Marijuana Act

In 2016, the Pennsylvania Legislature enacted the Medical Marijuana Act (MMA), which allows qualifying patients to obtain and use medical marijuana.  The MMA also includes protections for employees who are certified to use medical marijuana, preventing employers from “discharg[ing], threaten[ing], refus[ing] to hire or otherwise discriminat[ing] against an employee . . . solely on the basis of such an employee’s status as an individual who is certified to use medical marijuana.”  However, the MMA does not explicitly allow employees certified to use medical marijuana who believe they have been discriminated against to file a lawsuit against their employers or prospective employers. 

Palmiter v. Commonwealth Health Systems

In the Palmiter case, an employee filed a lawsuit in the Court of Common Pleas of Lackawanna County (“the Lackawanna County Court”) against her employer after she was fired for testing positive for marijuana on an employer-administered drug test.  She asserted a claim under the MMA and a claim for common law wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. 

Her employer filed preliminary objections to her complaint, arguing that the MMA did not provide for a private right of action to enforce its provisions.  The Lackawanna County Court disagreed, and determined that although the MMA does not explicitly allow employees to file lawsuits against their employers, the statute implies a private right of action.  Specifically, the court reasoned, “[w]ithout the availability of an implied private right of action for an employee who is fired solely for being certified as a medical marijuana user, the anti-discrimination directive in [the MMA] would be rendered impotent.”

In reaching its conclusion, the Lackawanna County Court also cited to other decisions from around the country, including Noffsinger v. SSC Niantic Operating Company, LLC, 273 F. Supp. 3d 326 (D. Conn. 2017), where courts have recognized private rights of action to enforce state medical marijuana laws’ anti-discrimination provisions.  In so ruling, the Lackawanna County Court also rejected the employer’s argument that violations of the law were to be remedied by Pennsylvania’s Department of Health (DOH), which is charged with regulating the MMA, because the DOH’s powers are limited to regulating the patients, physicians, and entities that have chosen to take part in the Commonwealth’s medical marijuana program, not employers.

The Lackawanna County Court determined that employees can also bring common law claims of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy against their employers when they allege that they were terminated because of their status as a certified medical marijuana user.  The Lackawanna County Court reasoned that the MMA establishes a clear public policy mandate against terminating employees because they are certified medical marijuana users, and thus, employees can bring wrongful termination claims.

Employer Takeaways

Because the Palmiter decision was issued by a county Court of Common Pleas, it is not binding on courts throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  Nevertheless, other courts in Pennsylvania may follow its lead and allow employees to bring claims against their employers under the MMA. 

The law does not limit an employer’s ability to discipline an employee for being under the influence of medical marijuana in the workplace or for working while under the influence when the employee’s conduct falls below the standard of care normally accepted for that position.  It also contains several exceptions to the anti-discrimination provision, most notably for employment subject to federal regulation or where safety is a concern.  Employers can prohibit medical marijuana patients from performing, while under the influence of medical marijuana, any task the employer deems life-threatening to either the employee or co-employees or any duty that could result in a public health or safety risk.  These prohibitions do not constitute an adverse employment decision even if it causes the employee financial harm. 

Nevertheless, employers should be aware that when they discipline or terminate medical marijuana users, the employees may subsequently bring claims under the MMA and for wrongful termination in violation of public policy.  Although the damages available to those denied rights under the MMA are not clearly defined, the Palmiter court implied that back pay and front pay would be available remedies for employees whose claims are successful. Additionally, it is important to keep in mind that employees can be awarded punitive damages in common law wrongful termination claims.  Accordingly, employers should proceed with caution when determining what actions they will take with regard to employees certified to use medical marijuana. 

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.