On August 5, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania ruled, in a case of first impression, that the Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Act (“MMA”) permits a private right of action for employees who claim that they were discriminated against or terminated for use of medical marijuana in violation of the MMA.  The court held that such a discharge from employment can form the basis of a claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy.

In Scranton Quincy Clinic Co. v. Palmiter, 2021 PA Super 155, Scranton Quincy Clinic Company (Hospital) appealed from an order refusing to dismiss the complaint filed by former employee Pamela Palmiter. Ms. Palmiter became a medical marijuana card holder due to her chronic pain, chronic migraines, and persistent fatigue in December 2018. In 2019, the Hospital hired her as a Certified Medical Assistant.  At a scheduled drug test, Ms. Palmiter informed the laboratory that she was prescribed medical marijuana and produced a copy of her certification. Shortly thereafter, the Hospital terminated her employment based on the results of the drug test.

Following her discharge, Ms. Palmiter asserted several causes of action against the Hospital, two of which survived preliminary objections: first, a private cause of action under the MMA; and, second, a claim for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. The Hospital appealed the trial court’s interlocutory order, raising two questions on appeal:

  1. Whether Ms. Palmiter’s claim under the MMA was legally sufficient because the Act does not provide a private right of action?
  2. Whether Ms. Palmiter’s claim for wrongful discharge is legally sufficient?

With respect to the first question, the Hospital asserted that there was no legislative intent to create a private remedy under the MMA because the statute authorizes the Department of Health to impose civil penalties for violations, and does not include a remedy or time frame for bringing a private action. The Superior Court disagreed, noting that the Department of Health does not have exclusive jurisdiction to enforce the antidiscrimination provisions of the MMA. Rather, the Act authorizes employers, not the Department of Health, to discipline employees for being under the influence of medical marijuana in the workplace.  The Superior Court also found that the absence of an explicit time frame for bringing a private action did not evidence a lack of legislative intent to create a private right of action.

The Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s reasoning that the employment provision of the MMA would be “rendered meaningless if an aggrieved employee could not pursue a private cause of action and seek to recover compensatory damages from an employer” that violated the Act.

The Superior Court also rejected the Hospital’s arguments with respect to the second question, noting that “[t]he enactment of the MMA in 2016 reflects a public policy designed to protect certified users of medical marijuana from employment discrimination and termination.” The Superior Court found no bar to Ms. Palmiter’s claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy.

The Superior Court’s decision aligns with a recent decision from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Hudnell v. Thomas Jefferson University Hosps., Inc., C.A. 20-01-01621, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 176198 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 25, 2020), which concluded that Pennsylvania would find an implied private cause of action under its MMA.

Employers should be familiar with the employment provisions of the MMA and understand that, in addition to civil penalties from the Department of Health, violations of the Act could result in a civil suit by an aggrieved employee. For more on marijuana in the workplace, listen to our podcast here, and see our fall 2020 Pennsylvania marijuana update on accommodations and pre-employment testing here.