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Workers’ Compensation Injury Leads to Indefinite Suspension On Account Of Refusal Of Injured Worker To Submit to Medical Marijuana Drug Testing

By on September 19, 2018 in Court Rulings with 0 Comments

Daniel Cotto worked as a forklift operator at Ardagh Glass in Bridgeton, N.J.  On November 1, 2016, Cotto hit his head on the roof of a forklift at work.  He was advised to see Premier Orthopedics in Vineland, N.J. for a medical examination, and a Premier Orthopedics doctor placed Cotto on light duty work with a follow-up appointment set for December 8, 2016.  The Safety Department asked Cotto to submit to a breathalyzer and urine test in order to return to work.  Cotto explained that he was taking prescription medications, including medical marijuana under the New Jersey Compassionate Use of Medical Marijuana Act (“CUMMA”).  He was also taking prescription Percocet and advised the company that he could not pass any urine or drug test.

Cotto alleged that he was told he could no longer work at Ardagh Glass because he could not operate machinery while on narcotics.  Cotto argued that he revealed his prescription medications to the company when he was hired.  His doctor had given him a note stating he could operate machinery while using these drugs.  The company advised that it was not concerned about his use of Percocet but was concerned about his use of marijuana.

Cotto was not fired but he was placed on an indefinite leave.  He was not permitted to return to work until he could pass a drug test.  Cotto’s doctor wrote that Cotto had lifting restrictions because of medical conditions, but Cotto maintained that he could perform the essential functions of the job.  He sought a “reasonable accommodation,” specifically asking that the company waive any requirement that he pass a drug test for marijuana.

Eventually Cotto filed a law suit asserting disability discrimination and failure to make reasonable accommodations.  Ardagh Glass moved to dismiss the complaint because CUMMA does not mandate employer waiver of a drug test.

Initially the federal court agreed that Cotto plead enough to satisfy coverage under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.  His back and neck pain met the standard of the NJLAD.  The Court also noted that Cotto appeared to be qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, having done it for five years.  Ardagh, however, maintained that Cotto could not show that he could operate machinery while using marijuana.  The company noted that use of Percocet was not illegal, but marijuana use was illegal under federal law.

The Court next reviewed CUMMA and said, “The New Jersey legislature found that ‘modern medical research has discovered a beneficial use for marijuana in treating or alleviating the pain or other symptoms associated with certain debilitating medical conditions.’”  The Court added that CUMMA provides an affirmative defense to patients who are properly registered under the statute and subsequently arrested and charged with possession of marijuana.  The Court commented that the decriminalization of medical marijuana does not shield employees from adverse employment actions.

The Court’s decision today is a narrow one, as it must be for the narrow issue presented by Plaintiff’s complaint.  Plaintiff’s discrimination claims turn entirely on the question of whether he can compel Ardagh Glass to waive its requirement that he pass a drug test.  It is plain that CUMMA does not require Ardagh Glass to do so.  We therefore find that Plaintiff has failed to show that he could perform the ‘essential functions’ of the job he seeks to perform.  Ardagh Glass is within its rights to refuse to waive a drug test for federally-prohibited narcotics.

Regarding Cotto’s argument that other injured employees with restrictions had been permitted to work light-duty positions, the Court said that Cotto failed to show that similarly situated employees asked for the specific accommodation he asked for, namely a drug test waiver.

The case can be found at Cotto v. Ardagh Glass Packing, Inc., No. 18-1037 (D.N.J. August 10, 2018).  It is the first decision of its kind in New Jersey on the issue of whether an employer must make a reasonable accommodation of waiving a post-injury drug test for an employee covered under CUMMA.

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John H. Geaney

About the Author

About the Author:

John H. Geaney, an executive committee member and shareholder with Capehart Scatchard, began an email newsletter entitled Currents in Workers’ Compensation, ADA and FMLA in 2001 in order to keep clients and readers informed on leading developments in these three areas of law. Since that time he has written over 500 newsletter updates.

Mr. Geaney is the author of Geaney’s New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Manual for Practitioners, Adjusters & Employers. The manual is distributed by the New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education (NJICLE). He also authored an ADA and FMLA manual as distributed by NJICLE. If you are interested in purchasing the manual, please contact NJICLE at 732-214-8500 or visit their website at www.njicle.com.

Mr. Geaney represents employers in the defense of workers’ compensation, ADA and FMLA matters. He is a Fellow of the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers of the American Bar Association and is certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a workers’ compensation law attorney. He is one of two firm representatives to the National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network. He has served on the Executive Committee of Capehart Scatchard for over ten (10) years.

A graduate of Holy Cross College summa cum laude, Mr. Geaney obtained his law degree from Boston College Law School. He has been named a “Super Lawyer” by his peers and Law and Politics. He serves as Vice President of the Friends of MEND, the fundraising arm of a local charitable organization devoted to promoting affordable housing.

Capehart Scatchard is a full service law firm with offices in Mt. Laurel and Trenton, New Jersey. The firm represents employers and businesses in a wide variety of areas, including workers’ compensation, civil litigation, labor, environmental, business, estates and governmental affairs.

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