2021 PA Super 159
It was ruled on August 5, 2021, by the Superior Court of Pennsylvania that the Medical Marijuana Act (MMA) allowed an employee to sue their employer for imposing negative employment actions based on the employee’s status as a certified medical marijuana user. The Superior Court affirmed the decision of the Court of Common Pleas of Lackawanna County by ruling that the trial Court did not err when it refused to dismiss Palmiter’s claim of wrongful discharge. By doing so, the Superior Court found that the MMA as a whole intended to create an implied private right of action for aggrieved employees. This decision helped clarify employee rights and employer obligations as outlined under the MMA.
Pamela Palmiter began working for Medical Associates of NEPA as a medical assistant in 2017, which was acquired by the Defendant hospital. In December 2018, Palmiter was granted a license to use medical marijuana within the state of Pennsylvania because of her chronic pain, migraines and tiredness. Palmiter applied for the position of certified medical assistant within the hospital in January 2019. She was told that she would be treated as a new employee of the hospital because of the acquisition. As part of the hiring process, Palmister had to submit a drug test and she tested positive for marijuana. Palmiter claims that while she had shared her medical marijuana certificate with the testing laboratory, the hospital nonetheless terminated her employment due to the positive drug screen.
Palmiter filed a lawsuit against the hospital in the Court of Common Pleas of Lackawanna County. She alleged the violation of s.2103 of the MMA, wrongful discharge in violation of public policy and various other claims. The trial court determined that, prima facie, s.2103 of the MMA contained an implied private right of action that allowed the action to be brought forward.
This hospital argued on appeal to the Superior Court that the legislation was not intended to create a private cause of action under the MMA. Additionally, the hospital asserted that the employment provision of the MMA does not provide any limitation period for which an aggrieved employee can bring a claim, nor does it state what damages are available to an employee. The hospital brought forward a three-part test to determine if an implied private right of action exists. This test came from the U.S. Supreme court case of Cort v. Ash which consists of “(1) the plaintiff is part of a class for whose ‘especial’ benefit the statute was enacted; (2) there is an indication of legislative intent to create or deny a remedy; lastly (3) an implied cause of action is consistent with the underlying purpose of the legislative scheme.” The hospital further claimed that the Pennsylvania Department of Health is fully responsible for implementing and enforcing the MMA and that they have exclusive jurisdiction over the MMA.
The Superior Court did acknowledge that s.2103 lacks any limitation period or damages provisions. However, it found that the statute should be given a ‘liberal construction’ by viewing s.2103 as containing “rights-creating language” for the benefit of workers who are certified to use medical marijuana. The Superior Court also found that the Pennsylvania Department of Health did not have the sole responsibility for enforcing the MMA, as it indicated that under s.2103 employers can discipline employees who are under the influence of medical marijuana in the workplace.
The Superior Court held that the trial court did not err when it refused to dismiss Palmiter’s claim of wrongful termination. Even though the hospital argued that Pennsylvania had never previously recognized a claim of wrongful discharge based on the results of a drug test, the Superior Court rejected that argument when it found that medical marijuana should be treated as more akin to a prescription drug.
The Superior Court remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings.
This decision by the Pennsylvania Superior Court will carry significant weight within the state of Pennsylvania. Other state courts have followed the same result as the Superior Court of Pennsylvania through their decisions that prohibit employers from discriminating against employees based on their medical marijuana use. It is noteworthy that there are still several safeguards in the MMA that are unaffected by the decision of the Pennsylvania Superior Court. Employers can still discipline employees who use medical marijuana while at work. This decision adds to a developing area of the law that can present challenges for employers when it comes to employees’ medical marijuana use. It is important for employers in Pennsylvania to carefully examine their marijuana policies and procedures to ensure that they do not conflict with the decision in Palmiter.
Student graduating from the City University of London in 2022.