California Supreme Court Rules Employers may Fire Employee for Marijuana Use

August 21, 2008

In its January 2008 ruling in Ross v. Ragingwire, the California Supreme Court held that an employer does not violate the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) for terminating an employee who tests positive for marijuana use. The Court stated that, underCalifornia law, an employer may require pre-employment drug tests and may take illegal drug use into consideration in making employment decisions.

The Court’s decision was despite the fact that the employee used marijuana under a physicians’ direction to treat chronic pain underCalifornia’s Compassionate Use Act of 1996. The Compassionate Use Act provides a person who uses marijuana, for medical purposes under a physician’s recommendation, a defense to certain state drug-related criminal charges. However, because the Compassionate Use Act is a state law, it does not shield an individual from Federal drug laws.

In deciding against the employee, the Supreme Court reasoned that the Compassionate Use Act does not give marijuana the status of a legal prescription drug. Moreover, the Court held that no state law could completely legalize marijuana for medical purposes because marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Under this logic, the Court held that the state Compassionate Use Act merely exempted medical users and their primary caregivers from criminal liability under specifically designatedCaliforniastatutes. The Court noted that “nothing in the text or history of the Compassionate Use Act suggests the voters intended the [Compassionate Use Act] to address the respective rights and obligations of employers and employees.”

The Court cited Loder v. City of Glendale in noting that employers have a legitimate interest to avoid hiring drug users “[i]n light of the well-documented problems that are associated with the abuse of drugs and alcohol by employees - increased absenteeism, diminished productivity, greater health costs, increased safety problems and potential liability to third parties, and more frequent turnover . . . .”

Ramification for Employers

It is important for employers to keep in mind that the Ragingwire case is narrow in scope and the Court relied heavily on the fact that marijuana is illegal under Federal law. Employers should use great caution in making employment decisions based on an employee’s use of any drugs for medical reasons. Moreover, Ragingwire did not alter the employer’s responsibility under state or federal law to make reasonable accommodations for employee disabilities.

© 2008 Szeto Law Group. These materials do not constitute legal advice and are for general informational purposes only. They may be reproduced for personal use and for non-commercial distribution. All copies must include this copyright statement.
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