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Washington's Medical Marijuana Law Does Not Support a Wrongful Termination Claim

  • June 14, 2011

Rejecting an employee’s claims for wrongful termination, the Washington Supreme Court has held that the state Medical Use of Marijuana Act (“MUMA”) does not provide a civil cause of action for wrongful termination based on the employee’s authorized medical marijuana use.  Roe v. TeleTech Customer Care Mgmt. (Colorado) LLC, No. 83768-6 (Wash. June 9, 2011).  The Court further held that MUMA does not create a clear public policy supporting a tort claim for public policy wrongful discharge.

The Facts

Jane Roe suffered from debilitating migraine headaches.  After using both over-the-counter pain medication and prescription drugs without significant pain relief, she was prescribed medical marijuana.  Her doctor gave her an authorization to possess marijuana for medical purposes under MUMA, and she began using medical marijuana in her home, which alleviated her pain and allowed her to care for her children and to work.
On October 3, 2006, TeleTech Customer Care Management (Colorado) LLC, which provides telemarketing and telesales services, offered Roe a position as a customer service representative, contingent on her passing a drug screening.  The company’s drug policy required all employees to have a negative drug test result and stated that noncompliance would result in ineligibility for employment.

Roe acknowledged receipt of the drug policy, informed the company of her medical marijuana use, and offered to provide a copy of her authorization.  TeleTech declined.  On October 5, 2006, Roe took a drug test, which came back positive.  TeleTech learned of Roe’s positive drug test after she began its training.  The company terminated her employment. 

Roe sued the company for wrongful termination.  She claimed her termination violated MUMA and a clear public policy allowing medical marijuana use in compliance with MUMA.  The company moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted, and Roe appealed to the state Supreme Court.

No Wrongful Termination Claim under MUMA

The MUMA was adopted by Washington voters in 1998 and amended by the state legislature in 2007.  It specifies that authorized marijuana users “shall not be found guilty of a crime under state law for their possession and limited use of marijuana . . . .”  Wash. Rev. Code § 69.51A.005.   Its only reference to employment is the statement, “Nothing in this chapter requires any accommodation of any on-site medical use of marijuana in any place of employment ...”  Wash. Rev. Code § 69.51A.060. 

Roe argued that the law required employers to accommodate their employees’ lawful, off-site use of medical marijuana.  To determine whether the MUMA supported her wrongful termination claim, the Supreme Court examined MUMA’s “unambiguous” language and found that the statute’s explicit statement against an obligation to accommodate on-site medical marijuana use did not create an implicit obligation to accommodate off-site use.  The Court ruled that MUMA’s language did “not regulate the conduct of a private employer or protect an employee from being discharged because of authorized medical marijuana use.” 

Alternatively, even if MUMA’s language was deemed ambiguous, the Court found that extrinsic evidence, including the Voter’s Pamphlet and the 2007 legislative history, did not support Roe’s contention.  To the contrary, the Voter’s Pamphlet stated MUMA would prohibit marijuana use in the workplace.  Moreover, the Court reasoned, “One would expect any statute creating employment protections for authorized medical marijuana users might include exceptions for certain occupations or permissible levels of impairment on the job,” yet MUMA contains no exceptions addressing safety or job performance, contrary to what Roe suggested.

Roe also argued that the Court should imply a civil cause of action for wrongful termination based on MUMA.  To determine whether to imply a cause of action, the Court examined: (1) whether Roe fell within the class for whose “especial” benefit the statute was enacted; (2) whether the legislative intent, explicitly or implicitly, supported creating or denying a remedy; and (3) whether implying a remedy was consistent with the underlying purpose of the legislation.  Although Roe fell within the class for whose benefit MUMA was enacted, the Court held that MUMA does not provide employment protection or prohibit an employer from terminating an employee for medical marijuana use.  Further, such a claim is inconsistent with MUMA’s purpose; the statute was intended to provide an affirmative defense to criminal prosecution, not a remedy for wrongful termination.  Accordingly, the Court found that MUMA did not imply a cause of action against an employer.

No Public Policy Wrongful Termination Claim

The Court also considered whether the statute could form the basis of a public policy wrongful termination claim under Washington’s “narrow [tort] exception to the general at-will employment rule.”  To establish such a claim, Roe had to “establish a clear public policy” through an “authoritative declaration of the nature of the wrong.”  The necessary clear statement of public policy does not exist “merely because the plaintiff can point to legislation or judicial precedent that addresses the relevant issue.” 

Roe argued that the MUMA contains a broad public policy protecting a patient’s “personal, individual decision” to use medical marijuana.  The Court disagreed, finding the law was not so sweeping as to remove “all impediments to authorized medical marijuana use or forbid an employer from discharging an employee because she uses medical marijuana.”  The law’s only reference to employment was “an explicit statement against requiring employers to accommodate medical marijuana use.”  Accordingly, the Court affirmed summary judgment in favor of the company.


This case is good news for employers in Washington.  An employee’s decision to use medical marijuana will not excuse him or her from complying with the employer’s drug testing policy.  MUMU does not require employers to modify their policies to accommodate employees’ use of medical marijuana, and employers will not be exposed to liability for terminating employees who fail drug screens due to authorized use of medical marijuana. 

Jackson Lewis attorneys are available to answer inquiries regarding this and other workplace developments.

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