Colorado High Court Says Workers Can Be Fired for Off-Duty Marijuana Use

Man sued after Dish Network fired him for testing positive, even though drug is legal in state

Updated June 15, 2015 4:43 p.m. ET

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled Monday that employers lawfully can fire workers for using marijuana when they’re not on the job, even though the drug is legal in the state, upholding two lower court decisions on the issue.

The case, which involved a quadriplegic man who lost his job at Dish Network LLC after testing positive for marijuana in violation of company policy, had been closely watched around the country—especially in states where medical marijuana use is legal.

Brandon Coats, who has a state-issued medical marijuana license, said that he used the drug only when he wasn’t working to help with his disabilities. In a 2011 lawsuit, he argued that Dish violated Colorado law by firing him for engaging in a “lawful” activity while not on the job.

But in its unanimous 6-0 decision, the state Supreme Court sided with Dish Network, which argued that marijuana remains illegal under federal law and employers should be allowed to maintain a drug-free workplace. The court said the company didn’t violate Colorado’s lawful activities statute when it fired Mr. Coats.

“The term ‘lawful’ refers only to those activities that are lawful under both state and federal law,” the decision said. “Therefore, employees who engage in an activity such as medical marijuana use that is permitted by state law but unlawful under federal law are not protected by the statute.”

Mr. Coats’s lawyer, Michael Evans, said in response to the ruling that his client had little choice on whether to use medical marijuana, noting that it was the only drug Mr. Coats and his doctor knew of that could control the seizures he suffered due to his quadriplegia.

“Although I’m very disappointed today, I hope that my case has brought the issue of use of medical marijuana and employment to light,” Mr. Coats said in a statement. “If we’re making marijuana legal for medical purposes we need to address issues that come along with it such as employment. Hopefully views on medical marijuana—like the ones in my specific case—will change soon.”

Dish Network said it was pleased with the court’s decision. “As a national employer, Dish remains committed to a drug-free workplace and compliance with federal law,” the company said.

Kabrina Krebel Chang, a clinical associate professor of business law and ethics at Boston University said she wasn’t surprised by the ruling given that state court decisions around the country have turned out similarly. Until the federal government specifically addresses the issue, laws affecting marijuana and the workplace likely will remain hazy, she said.

“This ruling doesn’t give employers any more guidance, and it doesn’t give employees any more help either,” Ms. Chang added.

Colorado’s constitutional amendment that legalized recreational marijuana expressly states that employers wouldn’t be restricted from having policies that ban pot use by workers.

Some 23 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana. Colorado and Washington state also permit recreational pot use. Legal experts, however, say it has remained unclear how such laws affect employers and whether they can fire a worker who uses the drug while off the job.