United States: Positive No More: Rhode Island Employers Need To Think Twice Before Denying Employment Based On A Positive Drug Test

In a recently issued trial court decision, Callaghan v. Darlington Fabrics Corp., a Rhode Island Superior Court justice held that an employer could not deny employment to an applicant licensed under state law to possess and consume medical marijuana solely because the applicant would be unable to pass a mandatory pre-employment drug test. The decision, which granted the applicant summary judgment against the employer, recognizes—for the first time in Rhode Island—a private right of action for medical marijuana "cardholders" to seek damages for discrimination on account of their status as medical marijuana patients by schools, landlords, and employers. Employers with Rhode Island operations may want to reevaluate their drug testing procedures going forward as a result of this decision.

Factual Background

The case arose after the defendant, Darlington Fabrics Corporation, rescinded a paid internship in July of 2014 to the plaintiff, Christine Callaghan, a graduate student, after Callaghan disclosed she was a medical marijuana cardholder. Callaghan made the disclosure during a pre-employment meeting with the company's human resources coordinator who informed her she would need to take a pre-employment drug test. During a follow-up conference call, Callaghan informed the coordinator that she currently used medical marijuana because she was allergic to most other pain medications and that she would need to continue using it during her internship.  Though she would likely test positive for marijuana on her pre-employment drug test, Callaghan stated she would not bring marijuana to work or come to work under its influence.

Citing company policy that all new hires must pass a pre-employment drug screen, the coordinator later informed Callaghan that the company could not proceed with her internship.  With the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, Callaghan filed suit against the company for rescinding her internship under the state's Edward O. Hawkins and Thomas C. Slater Medical Marijuana Act (Hawkins-Slater Act), which regulates the licensure and use of medical marijuana, as well as the Rhode Island Civil Rights Act of 1990, which makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of disability, among other bases.

The Court's Analysis

Central to Callaghan's case were two provisions of the Hawkins-Slater Act, which state that "[n]o school, employer, or landlord may refuse to enroll, employ, or lease to, or otherwise penalize, a person solely for his or her status as a cardholder" and "[n]othing in this chapter shall be construed to require ... [a]n employer to accommodate the medical use of marijuana in any workplace." At summary judgment, the company argued, among other points, that Callaghan's suit was improper because the Hawkins-Slater Act did not provide an express, private right of action, unlike other state civil rights statutes. The company also argued that federal law—particularly the Drug Free Workplace Act of 1988—preempted the Hawkins-Slater Act's protections for cardholders. In response to Callaghan's disability discrimination claim, the company pointed to language in an analogous state disability statute that expressly disclaimed protection for disability accommodations based on illegal drug use, noting that medical marijuana is still illegal under federal law, to argue that the Rhode Island General Assembly did not intend for the state's Civil Rights Act to protect those engaged in drug use that is still illegal under federal law.

Looking closely at the legislative history behind the Hawkins-Slater Act's passage and applying traditional principles of statutory interpretation to fill in gaps in the law's provisions, the court granted summary judgment to Callaghan with respect to her Hawkins-Slater Act claims. The court noted that there was no express enforcement mechanism in the Act for protecting cardholders against discrimination by schools, employers, or landlords, and, therefore, the General Assembly must have intended for there to be a private right of action to fill that void. The court also found no conflict between the Act's protections for cardholders and federal laws applicable to the workplace because the Act expressly protected employers from having to accommodate drug use "in" the workplace. Accordingly, the court found no preemption issue, and based on the facts, the company's decision to rescind Callaghan's internship based on her cardholder status was ruled a violation of the Hawkins-Slater Act.

The court also denied summary judgment for the company with respect to Callaghan's Rhode Island Civil Rights Act claim in part because the language relied on by the company, which was found in an analogous civil rights statute for people with disabilities and expressly denied protection for remedies that involved the use of illegal drugs, did not appear in the statute that Callaghan filed suit under. The court presumed that the General Assembly knew the present legal landscape and that if it did not want the Civil Rights Act to afford protection to certain disabled individuals due to their illegal drug use, the General Assembly would have inserted appropriate language to address that. 

Since Callaghan did not move for summary judgment on her Rhode Island Civil Rights Act claim, it remains pending for trial. The company's counsel has indicated that it intends to appeal the court's ruling to the Rhode Island Supreme Court, but any appeal will need to wait until Callaghan's Civil Rights Act claim is adjudicated.

Key Takeaways

Though this is a lower court decision that is likely to be appealed, it is still a wake-up call to employers with Rhode Island employees to rethink their procedures for drug testing applicants and current employees. Depending on how the state supreme court rules, a positive drug test, particularly for marijuana, may no longer be automatic grounds for denying employment or requiring a current employee to seek rehabilitation. Employers may want to reevaluate their Rhode Island drug testing procedures to ensure, absent a contrary ruling from the state supreme court, that they provide exceptions for cardholders going forward. 

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