July 18, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Employer May Terminate Employee for Conduct Reasonably Related to Job Activities

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Williams v. Rock-Tenn Services, Inc. on Thursday, February 11, 2016.

Douglas Williams had been employed by Rock-Tenn Services for 36 years, and in the last four years of his employment, Williams was the Denver plant manager. In 2012, the Denver plant underwent a scheduled audit. Williams rescheduled his previously approved vacation in order to attend the post-audit meeting on June 27, 2012, but due to a scheduling conflict with upper-level management, the meeting was rescheduled for July 3, 2012, during Williams’ previously scheduled vacation. Williams’ supervisor, Vas, approved the vacation and absence from the meeting, but Vas’ supervisor, Morris, became upset that Williams was not at the meeting and ordered his termination. When Williams returned from vacation, he was terminated.

Williams sued Rock-Tenn under Colorado’s Lawful Off-Duties Activities Statute (LODAS), arguing that his approved vacation and absence from the meeting was a lawful activity for which he could not be terminated. Rock-Tenn filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, which the district court granted, holding that Williams’ conduct plainly fell within one of the LODAS exceptions because the termination was reasonably and rationally related to Williams’ duty to attend the post-audit meeting. Williams appealed, holding the dismissal was in error because his approved vacation was a personal, private activity protected by LODAS. He also suggested the dismissal was improper because it was based on an affirmative defense.

The court of appeals analyzed Williams’ factual allegations and found that they plainly showed the vacation and missing the meeting were inextricably linked. Williams was unavailable in person or by phone during his vacation, and the court agreed with the district court’s determination that Williams alleged Rock-Tenn improperly terminated him for missing the meeting while he was on a pre-approved vacation. Although the court found that Williams was correct that generally a party need not address an affirmative defense in its complaint, in these circumstances Williams was on notice of the availability of the affirmative defense because his complaint alleged impropriety under the same subsection of LODAS from which the affirmative defense arises. The court therefore found no error in the district court’s dismissal. Similarly, the court of appeals agreed with the district court that Williams’ complaint failed to state a claim from which relief could be granted due to the presence of the affirmative defense. Addressing Rock-Tenn’s request for attorney fees, the court of appeals declined to award attorney fees, noting that Rock-Tenn stated no legal basis for the fee award.

The court of appeals affirmed the district court.

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, L.L.C.attorney 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.