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Colorado Supreme Court Rules for Employers in Marijuana Case: Coats v Dish Network

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Colorado Supreme Court Rules for Employers in Marijuana Case: Coats v Dish Network

This morning, in a long-awaited decision, the Colorado Supreme Court this morning issued a decision in the case, Coats v. Dish Network, that has been of great interest to employers: an employer can terminate a worker who tests positive for marijuana despite Colorado’s legalization of both recreational and medical marijuana through ballot initiatives.

“This is very good news for the many Colorado employers who insist on zero tolerance of drug use in their workforce,” said CACI President Chuck Berry, “and while the Coats case addresses the use of medical marijuana, the court’s analysis will also apply to workers who use recreational marijuana since all marijuana use remains illegal under Federal law.”

“This decision also will very likely reverberate across the U.S. to the other three states, Oregon, Washington and Alaska, that have approved recreational marijuana,” said Loren Furman, CACI Senior Vice President, State and Federal Relations, “as well as the many states that have approved medical marijuana.”

By spring of this year, some 23 states and the District of Columbia had approved medical marijuana use, and another seven states were considering it.

For news media coverage of the decision, read:

Employees can be fired for pot use: Supreme Court,” Molly Ambrister, The Denver Business Journal, June 15th.

Colorado Supreme Court: Employers can fire workers for off-duty pot use,” by Alicia Wallace, The Denver Post, June 15th.

Colorado Civil Justice League Issues Statement on Coats v. Dish Network Decision

Note: CACI and the Colorado Civil Justice League have a long-established, mutually beneficial relationship.  CACI supported an amicus curiae brief on Coats v. Dish Network filed by CCJL with the Colorado Supreme Court.

Court Rules for Employers in Drug-Free Workplace Lawsuit.

A unanimous Colorado Supreme Court ruled that employers may enforce zero-tolerance drug use policies, even when the use in question is off-duty medical marijuana.

Brandon Coats, a quadriplegic and a medical marijuana patient, was terminated by Dish Networks when he failed a random drug test, violating the company’s drug policy. Coats argued that his medical marijuana use was protected by Colorado’s Lawful Activities Statute, which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees for their lawful off-duty activities.

Dish countered that medical marijuana use is not protected because it remains illegal under federal law. Both a district court and a three-member panel of the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Dish Network.

Writing for a 6-0 majority, Justice Allison Eid affirmed the Court of Appeals ruling “that the commonly accepted meaning of the term ‘lawful’ is ‘that which is permitted by law’ or conversely ‘not contrary to, or forbidden by law.”

“[A] lawful activity is that which complies with applicable law, including state and federal law,” the majority opinion stated.

“We find nothing to indicate that the General Assembly intended to extend (the Lawful Activities Statute’s) protection for ‘lawful’ activities to activities that are unlawful under federal law,” the justices concluded.

Colorado Civil Justice League (CCJL) submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in this case, written by legal advisory board attorney Chris Ottele of Husch Blackwell. The CCJL brief supported the lower courts’ rulings that an activity which is prohibited under federal law is not protected by state law; therefore, Dish Networks should be permitted to enforce its zero-tolerance drug policy.

Mountain States Employers Council Analyzes Coats v. Dish Network Decision

Curtis Graves, Esq., SPHR, Employment Law Services Attorney

Curtis Graves, Esq., SPHR, Employment Law Services Attorney

NOTE: CACI and the Mountain States Employers Council have a long-established, mutually beneficial relationship.

Major Marijuana Case Decided in Employers’ Favor

Posted on June 15, 2015 by Curtis Graves, Esq., SPHR, Employment Law Services Attorney in Colorado, Drugs and Alcohol

This morning, the Colorado Supreme Court handed down its decision in Coats v. Dish Network (Colo. 2015), affirming the Colorado Court of Appeals by holding that marijuana’s illegal status under federal law means its use is not protected under state law as a lawful, off-duty activity. It took the court more than eight months since oral arguments to publish its decision in what is certainly the most important case on marijuana and employment in the state’s history.

Brandon Coats is a quadriplegic who worked for Dish Network as a customer service representative starting in 2007. He used marijuana while off-duty, pursuant to Colorado’s Amendment 20 regulating medical marijuana, to alleviate the symptoms of his condition. After a random drug test revealed the presence of THC in his system, Dish Network terminated him in 2010.

Coats filed suit against Dish Network in 2011, alleging that by terminating him for his off-duty use of marijuana, Dish Network violated Colorado’s lawful off-duty activities statute (CLODA). CLODA makes it generally illegal to terminate an employee for their lawful actions that occur off-duty.

At trial, the Arapahoe Court of Appeals held that CLODA did not make off-duty marijuana use legal, but only provided an affirmative defense to criminal prosecution. Undaunted, Coats took his case to the Colorado Court of Appeals, which issued an opinion in April of 2013. By then, Colorado had also passed Amendment 64, making recreational marijuana use and possession “legal” under Colorado law. Nonetheless, the Colorado Court of Appeals issued a decision that impacted both medical and recreational marijuana in Colorado, holding that CLODA would only protect activities that were legal under both state and federal law.

Coats next petitioned for and received review by the Colorado Supreme Court on two issues:

  • whether Colorado’s lawful off-duty activities statute “protects employees from discretionary discharge for lawful use of medical marijuana outside the job where the use does not affect job performance,” and
  • whether the State’s medical marijuana amendment to the Colorado Constitution “makes the use of medical marijuana ‘lawful’ and confers a right to use medical marijuana to persons lawfully registered with the state.”

In construing CLODA’s language, the court looked to the language of the statute itself “with a view toward giving the statutory language its commonly accepted and understood meaning.”

“We therefore agree with the Court of Appeals,” the court said, “that the commonly accepted meaning of the term ‘lawful’ is ‘that which is ‘permitted by law’ or, conversely, that which is ‘not contrary to, or forbidden by law.’”

The court declined to accept Coats’s argument that the General Assembly, in drafting CLODA, intended the term “lawful” to mean “lawful under Colorado state law.” “In sum,” the court wrote, because Coats’s marijuana use was unlawful under federal law, it does not fall within [CLODA’s] protection for ‘lawful’ activities.”

Having decided the case under federal law, the court declined to address the second issued bulleted above.

While the court’s decision is not surprising, it solidifies—for now—employers’ ability to terminate employees for marijuana use in or out of the workplace. However, the issue is far from over for employers, as marijuana’s legal status is certain to evolve for years to come.

Curtis Graves, Esq., SPHR, Employment Law Services Attorney

Curtis joined MSEC in 2007.  He regularly trains human resources professionals, managers, supervisors, and employees in legal issues involved with drugs, harassment, unemployment compensation, performance documentation, and civil rights.  In addition to local media, Curtis has appeared on CNN, National Public Radio, and Al Jazeera to discuss employment law and how it relates to recreational marijuana in Colorado.