Sunday, March 9, 2014
In a lawsuit that's believed to be the first of its kind in Maine, a Pittsfield woman has sued a former employer for not rehiring her after she told the company that she uses marijuana for medical reasons.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and Augusta attorney Walter McKee filed the lawsuit Tuesday in Somerset County Superior Court on behalf of Brittany Thomas against Adecco Group North America, a global temporary staffing and recruiting agency.
The case illustrates a legal conflict that has arisen in states where marijuana is legal while federal laws prohibit its use.
McKee says an employer would never discipline an employee who tested positive for an FDA-approved drug, and argues that a user of medical marijuana should not be treated any differently.
"No patient should be forced to choose between the pain relief she needs to live a normal life and the employment she needs to support her family," said Zachary Heiden, legal director for the ACLU of Maine. "And no employer should be forcing itself into the middle of a decision best made by a patient and her doctor."
According to the lawsuit, Thomas, 24, was employed by Adecco in September and October 2011 and assigned to United Technologies Corp. in Pittsfield, where she assembled smoke detectors.
She was let go when there was no more work, then was called months later and asked to return to work. Thomas was eight months pregnant at the time and told Adecco that she would have to wait at least another month after the baby was born.
Before the pregnancy, Thomas said, she had severe back pain caused by arthritis, bulging discs, an annular tear and a pinched nerve, among other things.
She said she was prescribed narcotic pain medication that had side effects and did not relieve her pain. She stopped taking the medication while she was pregnant, and didn't want to go back to narcotics after she gave birth in March 2012. Her doctor suggested medical marijuana.
By early April, she was a certified medical marijuana patient. She had been using marijuana for a short time when she went back to Adecco for work and disclosed the fact to her employer.
Once the employer's drug test came back positive, Thomas was told that she would not be rehired.
"Using medical marijuana would never have gotten in the way of me doing my job, because I never would have taken it while on duty," Thomas said in an interview Tuesday. "I choose to use medical marijuana to control my pain because it doesn't have any of the side effects of stronger pain medication, like addiction. The incredible thing is: If I was using a stronger drug, I could have kept my job."
Maine's medical marijuana law does not address the issue of employment directly, leaving it to private employers. Under Maine law, an employee may be terminated for any non-discriminatory reason.
Thomas's complaint says she was discriminated against as a medical marijuana user and Adecco was wrong not to consider her for employment, because she did not violate any laws.
Thomas is seeking unspecified damages, including back wages.
Heiden said the ACLU of Maine approached Adecco about settling out of court but "those discussions were not fruitful."
A spokeswoman for Adecco, a Fortune 500 company with 6,600 offices worldwide, said she was not aware of the lawsuit and it was premature to comment. The company has 20 days to file a response to Thomas's complaint.
Maine voters passed a limited medical marijuana law in 1999, then expanded it significantly in 2009. Mainers with qualified medical conditions now can grow their own marijuana, buy it from one of eight nonprofit dispensaries or buy from a certified caregiver.
"Adecco is ignoring the will of the people of Maine, who overwhelmingly approved the use of marijuana for serious medical conditions," McKee said. "No employer should be permitted to flout state laws protecting the right of patients to access the medicine they need."
Heiden said there is limited legal precedent for such a case, at least in Maine, and that is one reason the ACLU has gotten involved. The issue has come up in many of the other 17 states where at least some use of medical marijuana is legal.
The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Michigan ruled in October that a private employer may terminate someone's employment for failing a drug test without violating that state's medical marijuana law. That decision came after a man sued his employer, Wal-Mart, after failing a drug test.
In December, a woman in New Mexico sued her employer claiming that she was fired for participating in her state's medical marijuana program. And a Denver man who was fired in 2010 from his job as a telephone operator sued his employer after failing a drug test because of medical marijuana.
Both of those cases are pending.
Arizona passed a law in 2011 that says an employer may not base any employment decision on a person's status as a card holder or a registered qualifying patient or user of marijuana under the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act.
However, that law shields some employers from liability if they fire employees who are under the influence of marijuana while on the job.
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: