Labor Day has come and gone. Summer is over.  Can we all stop listening to Despacito now. (Please?)

But it’s time to look at a decision that came out during the dog days of summer that might have been overlooked.  A recent federal district court case (Noffsinger v. SSN Niantic Operating Co. LLC, download here) has answered the question of whether Connecticut’s medical marijuana laws were preempted by federal law.

The decision held that Connecticut employees who have received approval from the state agency to use medical marijuana outside of work cannot be fired just because they test positive for marijuana during a drug screening.  In doing so, the court held that employees and job applicants can sue based on a termination or a rescinded job offer.

As my colleague wrote for my firm’s alert:

Unlike the laws of other states permitting residents to be prescribed medical marijuana, Connecticut’s statute expressly makes it unlawful to refuse to hire or to discharge an employee solely because of the individual’s status as a qualifying patient, or for testing positive in a drug screening as a result of using medical marijuana within the protections of the statute. However, Connecticut does not protect such individuals if they are found to be using or are under the influence of medical marijuana during working hours.

The court analyzed federal drug laws and determined that they do not address the issue of employment and do not make it unlawful to employ a medical marijuana user. As a result, even though federal law prohibits possession or use of marijuana, those restrictions do not apply to someone properly using medical marijuana under state law.

The decision follows one from Massachusetts that we previously recapped here.

In prior posts, I’ve talked about the difficulties for employers trying to navigate this still-developing area of law.  Employers should proceed carefully under such circumstances and ensure compliance with the state’s medical marijuana laws that prohibits firing employees solely because of the individual’s status as a qualifying medical marijuana patient.

If an employee is under the influence of marijuana during working hours, that may afford employers the opportunity to take decisive employment action but other circumstances may not be so clear.

Consulting with your legal counsel on this changing area of law is advisable for the foreseeable future while more court decisions define the parameters of acceptable action.

I’ve talked many times before about the importance of a well-drafted disclaimer in your employee handbook (here and here, for example).

This is not a new thing and in Connecticut dates back to an important case back in 1995 .

Without such disclaimers, employers can be subject to a breach of contract claim by your employees.

Yesterday, a federal judge in Connecticut was the latest to reinforce this message by allowing a breach of contract claim to proceed based on the employer allegedly failing to comply with its own anti-harassment policy, even though the federal legal claim of harassment was time-barred.

You can download the decision denying the employer’s motion for summary judgment on this issue in Mariani v. Costco Wholesale Corp. here.

One important note at the outset. This decision does not mean Costco is liable for a breach of contract; all the court decided is that the employee’s claim can proceed to a trial.  (In doing so, the court threw out many other claims of the employee.)

The facts on this issue seem straightforward. Costco seemingly has an employee handbook that it titles “Employee Agreement”.  It requires the employees to acknowledge receipt.  Costco conceded to the court that this “Agreement” could create a contractual obligation to its employees.

But, according to the court, Costco’s anti-harassment policy created an additional contractual responsibility that it did not disclaim. In other words,  the court said that while the employer was under no obligation to have tougher anti-harassment policies than state or federal law — having said it would abide by stronger language, it must follow that or face a breach of contract claim.

The court’s “money” quote is this:

The Employment Agreement does not contain any disclaimer language to the effect that its “super” anti-harassment provisions do not create legally enforceable protections beyond the protections of background law. Today’s corporate employers compete not only on grounds of their raw ability to make, deliver, and sell goods and services at a low or reasonable cost but also on grounds of their corporate self-image as “good” corporate citizens. They likewise compete on grounds of their ability to attract employees by means of promises of innovative management practices that foster dynamic workplaces that are comfortable and safe. This is not to fault the fact that Costco has adopted progressive anti-harassment policies but only to make clear that these policies, as framed without disclaimer, may give rise to legally independent and enforceable obligations for the benefit of employees that rely on them

How can Connecticut employers avoid this same result?

This case should be yet another reminder of the importance of a disclaimer in any company handbook that these policies.  Remind employees that no provision of the handbook creates an employment contract or any other obligation in regard to employment.  And consider using this language in the acknowledgment of receipt.

And, without stating the obvious, consider calling your employee handbook, well, a handbook instead of an “agreement”.  If you call it an agreement, a court isn’t going to disagree with you.

With the year coming to a close, this is the perfect time to have your handbook reviewed by an attorney.  Otherwise, you could be facing an employment law claim that you created yourself.

 

Costco Contract Claim