August 22, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Termination Upheld for Quadriplegic Medical Marijuana User Because Marijuana Remains Illegal Under Federal Law

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Coats v. Dish Network, L.L.C. on Thursday, April 25, 2013.

Medical Marijuana—CRS § 24-34-402.5—“Lawful Activity”—Attorney Fees.

Plaintiff Brandon Coatsappealed the trial court’s dismissal of his complaint for failure to state a claim and its order awarding defendant Dish Networks, fees. The judgment was affirmed and the order was reversed.

Defendant fired plaintiff after he tested positive for marijuana, which was a violation of defendant’s drug policy. Plaintiff is a quadriplegic and licensed by the state of Colorado to use medical marijuana pursuant to the Medical Marijuana Amendment (Amendment). Plaintiff alleged that he used marijuana within the limits of his license, never used it on defendant’s premises, and was never under the influence of marijuana at work.

Plaintiff claimed his termination violated the Lawful Activities Statute, CRS § 24-34-402.5, which prohibits an employer from discharging an employee for “engaging in any lawful activity off the premises of the employer during nonworking hours.” Defendant filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that plaintiff’s use of medical marijuana was not a “lawful activity” because it was prohibited under state and federal law.

The trial court agreed with defendant and dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim. The court also granted defendant’s motion for attorney fees pursuant to CRS § 13-17-201.

The Court of Appeals noted that all marijuana use was, and remains, prohibited by federal law. The Court held that this renders medical marijuana use not “lawful activity” for purposes of CRS § 24-34-402.5, finding the term includes federal and state law.

CRS § 13-17-201 mandates an award of reasonable attorney fees to a defendant when a court dismisses, pursuant to CRCP 12(b), an “action[] brought as a result of . . . an injury . . . occasioned by the tort of any other person.” The trial court granted the motion because it determined plaintiff’s claim constituted a tort claim.

The claim was based on a violation of CRS § 24-34-402.5, which is an employment discrimination provision of the Colorado Civil Rights Act (CCRA). Plaintiff was seeking back pay and benefits. Defendant first argued this is the equivalent of an invasion of privacy tort. The Court rejected this argument, because the interest being protected by this statutory section is from discriminatory termination based on lawful, off-the-job activity and not against intrusion into privacy or discovery and disclosure of private information.

Defendant further argued that the claim asserted had enough tort-like characteristics to be considered a tort. The Court found that although there is no satisfactory definition of what constitutes a tort, the primary purpose of tort law is to compensate individuals for injuries wrongfully suffered at the hands of others. The Court found that, based on the statute’s language and legislative history, its purpose is not to compensate an individual for breach of a statutory duty, but to eliminate workplace discrimination based on lawful, off-the-job activity. In addition, most traditional tort remedies are not available for this claim; the damages would simply restore the plaintiff to the wage and employment position he or she would have had absent the unlawful discrimination. The judgment dismissing plaintiff’s complaint was affirmed and the order awarding attorney fees was reversed.

Summary and full case available here.

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