New Mexico State Courts Should Decide How To Interpret State Employment and Marijuana Laws

Clifford Geiger
Clifford Geiger

Augustine Stanley filed a lawsuit in New Mexico state court alleging that his employer discriminated against him when it fired him as a detention officer because of his state-authorized used of medical marijuana.  Stanley’s original complaint, based only on state law, alleged that the New Mexico Human Rights Act required his employer to accommodate his medical marijuana use.  Medical marijuana use is illegal under federal law, which the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed in an 8-0 decision in May 2001.

Stanley subsequently amended his complaint to add a series of allegations of federal law violations.  The employer removed the case to federal court.  A new attorney for Stanley decided that Stanley should withdraw his federal claims.  The employer opposed the withdrawal of the federal claim and filed a motion to dismiss Stanley’s amended complaint.  In essence, the employer argued that Stanley’s legal tactics were futile, because Stanley’s state law claims were meritless.

Stanley confirmed that he was no longer pursuing any federal claims, but his former employer argued that the federal court should retain jurisdiction of the state law claims either because they were either (a) completely preempted by the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), or (b) otherwise implicate federal interests.  The Court quickly determined that it did not have original jurisdiction over Stanley’s claims, because there was no case law supporting an argument that the CSA completed preempted Stanley’s state law discrimination claims.

The Court went on to address whether it should exercise its discretion to keep and decide the state law claims.  The defendant argued that the New Mexico Human Rights Act bars claims by employees terminated for violations of federal law, and cited cases from Colorado, Michigan and California, each of which rejected claims that state anti-discrimination laws prohibit private employers from terminating employees for state authorized use of medical marijuana.  No New Mexico case law, however, exists on the issue.  While acknowledging that resolution of the case involves a potential issue of federal law, the federal court decided New Mexico should decide the case, because New Mexico has a strong interest in deciding upon the interaction of its employment and marijuana laws. Stanley v. Cty. Of Bernalillo Bd. Of Comm’rs, D.N.M., 1:14-cv-00550 JB-SCY, 7/31/15) .

As Stanley argued, the result may be different with a public employer, or the result may just depend on specific statutory language.  For example, other decisions from Oregon, Washington, and Montana all dealt with medical marijuana laws under which employers explicitly were not required accommodate an employee’s medical marijuana use.  The Michigan case turned on quirky statutory interpretation finding that the medical marijuana law does not apply to private employment.

This conflict between state and federal interests is unlikely to go away soon, but thus far, courts have sided with employers.  Most recently, in June 2015 the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that a state law making it illegal to terminate an employee for engaging in lawful activity while away from work does not protect users of medical marijuana, because marijuana use is not “lawful” under federal law.  Coats v. Dish Network, LLC, 350 P.3d 849 (2015).

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