Today, the Colorado Supreme Court unanimously held that Colorado’s Lawful Off-Duty Activities Statute does not protect employees from discharge for using medical marijuana away from work. In a highly anticipated decision, Coats v Dish Network, LLC, No. 13SC394, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the plain language of the statute that protects employees engaging in “lawful off-duty activities,” does not cover medical marijuana use, which is illegal under federal law.
The employee who filed the lawsuit, Brandon Coats, was a quadriplegic working in Dish Network’s call center as a customer service representative. Coats had a state-issued medical marijuana license to treat muscle spasms. He alleged that he used marijuana at home during non-working hours and was never high at work. Dish discharged Coats after he tested positive for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in a random drug test, in violation of Dish’s zero-tolerance drug policy. He argued that under the lawful off-duty activities statute, Dish was not permitted to discharge him for using medical marijuana during nonworking hours and off company premises.
In a straight-forward and succinct opinion, the Colorado Supreme Court focused solely on the language of the lawful off-duty activities statute to decide that “lawful” refers only to activities that are lawful under both state and federal law. Justice Allison Eid declared “Coats’ use of medical marijuana was unlawful under federal law and thus not protected by section 24-34-402.5,” rejecting Coats’s and others’ arguments that the term “lawful” refers only to Colorado law. The court declined to address arguments about the underlying purpose of the statute, the medical need for individuals like Coats to use marijuana, and whether Colorado’s medical marijuana amendment made its use “lawful” or merely decriminalized under state law. The Supreme Court even declined to address one of the two questions it posed when granting certiorari: whether the amendment to Colorado’s constitution authorizing medical marijuana conferred a “right” to its use.
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