Rhode Island Superior Court Judge Richard Licht refused to dismiss a case in which a University of Rhode Island graduate student alleged that she was denied employment due to her status as a medical marijuana user.
The case, which was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in November of 2014, concerns URI grad student Christine Callaghan, who is working towards a masters’ degree in textiles. Callaghan is also a registered medical marijuana user in order to deal with frequent migraine headaches. In July of last year, Callaghan was slated to begin a paid internship with Darlington Fabrics in Westerly, which she needed to finish her degree. After disclosing her status as a medical marijuana user, the company withdrew her internship.
In the lawsuit, the ACLU argues that Darlington has violated the Hawkins Slater Medical Marijuana Act. Callaghan’s attorney, Carly Beauvais Iafrate, said that because the company had no other reason to withdraw their offer from Callaghan, they are breaking the law.
“Under the Hawkins Slater Medical Marijuana Act, when the General Assembly put that really critical employment language in, which essentially says that no person will be not hired or denied any privileged in employment because of their cardholder status,” she said. “They didn’t then put any language in there that says if someone violates that section, you can sue them. That’s called a private right of action. So what [Darlington’s lawyer] was saying was there’s nothing in the statute that says you can sue anybody over it, and so therefore, you shouldn’t be allowed to.”
Iafrate said the defendant’s argument relies on what is normally written into other disability laws, that lay out penalties for those who violate the law, be it a fine or the right to sue. The Hawkins Slater Medical Marijuana Act lacks that language. In other situations, the Rhode Island Supreme Court has not assigned a remedy and implied a private right of action, but Iafrate says that this case is different from the precedent that has already been set.
“Those other situations are different, because in this statute, the General Assembly said liberally construe this to make sure that the purpose is effectuated, so that it doesn’t become meaningless,” she said. “Think about it. If there’s no remedy, what meaning does it have that they say that no employer can refuse to hire? They can just do it anyway, because there’s no remedy.”
The ACLU is also arguing that by refusing to hire Callaghan, Darlington has discriminated against a disabled person, and is in violation of the Rhode Island Civil Rights Act.
Licht did not approve Darlington’s motion to dismiss for a number of reasons, but his biggest reason dealt with the Medical Marijuana Act, and Darlington’s argument that there is no private right of action, and that they should be allowed to not hire Callaghan to ensure a drug free workplace.
“It’s inconceivable to me that the General Assembly meant to say discriminate against for the use of marijuana, even though you can’t discriminate against them because they hold a card that allows them to use it,” Licht said. “I doubt there are many people who sought out a medical marijuana card that don’t use it.”
While Callaghan is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, Iafrate said she had other reasons to sue as well.
“One of her main purposes, which is why she went to the ACLU, is because this is an important issue, and it needs to be decided. People who are engaging in the medical use of marijuana in the state need to know whether they have employment protection or not. And they need to know whether it’s just words on paper or if it actually means something,” Iafrate said.
In a press release from the ACLU, Callaghan said that she would like companies to treat medical marijuana patients just as they would any other employee who may take medication for a chronic illness.
The next step is for the case to go to summary judgment and for both parties to engage in discovery of evidence and facts. Iafrate said this should happen within the next year.