LAW & PUBLIC SAFETY

Exclusive: Amazon lawsuit highlights gap between workplace rules and medical marijuana law

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

A lawsuit filed in Middlesex County by a former Amazon employee is the latest development highlighting an emerging disconnect in workplace law: the clash between companies that have zero-tolerance drug policies and the state’s recognition of marijuana as a legitimate medical remedy for a host of maladies.

In a complaint filed in Superior Court last month, D.J.C. — a Parlin resident who’s identified only by his initials in court papers — alleges he was wrongly fired from his job at an Amazon distribution center in Edison last summer when he failed a random drug test, even though he has a medical marijuana card and that the drug had been prescribed for him to treat his anxiety disorder. He’s looking for reinstatement, back pay and punitive damages.

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment, but its lawyers are seeking to have the case removed to federal court, and requesting more time to respond to the complaint, records show.

“Medical marijuana patients make up a big percentage of people,” D.J.C. said. “Honestly, I was shocked I was the first person they were encountering.”

To be sure, his circumstance is far from unique.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has a case pending in a similar matter, reviewing whether a state appeals court rightly extended state law requiring companies to make accommodations for workers with various disabilities or medical conditions to those with legitimate medical marijuana prescriptions.

This past summer, the state Legislature provided some limited guidance, with the passage of what’s now known as the Jake Honig Compassionate Use Medical Cannabis Act, which bars employers from sanctioning workers based solely on their holding a medical marijuana card. The law also gives those who fail a marijuana screening test an opportunity to show that they are allowed to take the drug medicinally. The law, which was approved overwhelmingly in both legislative houses, allows employers to terminate those who are intoxicated on the job.

At least one lawmaker in New Jersey, one of 33 states embracing medical uses of marijuana, said he recognizes there’s daylight between what the law says and, at least in some cases, the realities of the workplace.

“It’s a problem,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney. “My industry — we’re iron workers. We’re 100% drug free. I had someone with a medical marijuana card and we said you can’t work. That has to be hashed out.”

Business groups, too, see a disconnect.

“There are no federally accepted medical purposes for marijuana at this time,” said Mike Wallace, vice president for government affairs for the New Jersey Business and Industry Association. “So, yeah, especially in those safety-sensitive positions, companies need to be permitted to have those zero-tolerance policies.”

Others, though, see a way for employers to thread the needle.

“To do business in New Jersey, they need to comply with the law, which does not permit them to discriminate just because someone is using marijuana — off work time, certainly not coming to work under the influence, because a person could always be terminated legally if that happens,” said James Cooney, a professor at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. “And in the end, I don’t think it should pose much of a burden on employers.”

During an interview, in which NJTV News agreed not to disclose his identity, D.J.C said he worked as a warehouse associate in Edison for Amazon for 10 months and had a spotless record. In July 2018, he was asked to take a random drug test and tested positive. A month later, he was told he was being terminated.

“They had a zero-tolerance policy against illegal drugs, and to me that wasn’t an illegal drug. That was my medicine,” he said, noting that he had a medical marijuana card from the state.

Amazon representatives didn’t let him list any medications before the test, and afterwards they seemed confused when he told them he’s a legal medical marijuana patient, he said.

A human resources representative wavered, and “said I wasn’t being terminated, then went over paperwork with me that said I was being placed on disability leave while I got paperwork filled out by my doctor,” D.J.C. said.

When his doctor submitted the requested paperwork, the company then said he was being terminated for failing to tell them he used medical marijuana. Ultimately, in August, they terminated him citing the company’s zero-tolerance policy.

“Three terminations, each for a different reason. It’s almost like whack-a-mole,” said D.J.C.’s attorney, Walter Dana Venneman. “And what strikes me most in those three separate terminations, and it’s laid out in the complaint, is that at no point, ever, did they consider, ‘what might we work out with our good employee?’”

In the lawsuit, Venneman claims Amazon broke state law by not offering his client some reasonable accommodation for his anxiety disability.

“Doesn’t matter if it’s medical cannabis, or it’s some other medication, or a limitation on hours,” he said. ”Whatever it is, they have to make an effort to make a reasonable accommodation. And they could’ve easily done that here.  And my client did not come to work impaired at that workplace.”

In the lawsuit, D.J.C. also claims Amazon “blacklisted” him, which cost him the possibility of being hired at Whole Foods. He’s finally found employment. But he’s angry at Amazon.

“I felt like they kicked me to the curb,” he said. “I felt like I was being betrayed. I felt like, that they weren’t taking my situation into consideration whatsoever.”