AP NEWS

Suit: Employee Fired For Medical Marijuana Use

March 19, 2019

A health system worker cleared by her doctor to use cannabis says she was fired because of it, and now she wants recourse.

Pamela Palmiter is su­ing Com­mon­wealth Health, its doc­tor net­work, Physi­cians Health Al­liance, and one of its Scranton hospitals, Moses Taylor Hospital, for vi­o­lat­ing em­ployee pro­tec­tions in Penn­syl­va­nia’s med­i­cal mar­i­juana law.

The medical assistant from Luzerne County had worked for Medical Associates of NEPA, a private physician group in Scranton that Commonwealth acquired earlier this year, according to the lawsuit.

Commonwealth Health officials declined to comment through a spokeswoman.

Cynthia Pollick, Palmiter’s attorney, also declined to comment beyond what’s laid out in court documents.

The suit exposes a mismatch in what state and federal laws say about using cannabis as medicine when it comes to employment.

The disparity becomes especially clear among organizations that operate across state lines and receive federal money, said Chris Goldstein, a spokesman National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML.

Commonwealth Health, a subsidiary of one of the country’s largest for-profit health companies, Community Health Systems, fits both descriptions — it has hospitals throughout the nation and accepts payments from Medicare and Medicaid, which are federally funded insurance programs.

Palmiter suffers from chronic pain, chronic migraines and persistent fatigue.

In December, she received her medical marijuana ID card, which cleared her to buy the drug at permitted state dispensaries. She notified her employer, then Medical Associates, that her doctor had authorized it.

When Commonwealth came on the scene, Palmiter was told that she could continue because Medical Associates accepted her using it, and its approval would be carried over, according to the suit.

When Commonwealth scheduled a drug screen, she provided a copy of her certification to use medical marijuana. It’s not clear in the suit whether she actually took the drug test.

A few days later, Commonwealth fired her.

The Medical Marijuana Act of 2016 includes provisions barring employers from firing or otherwise discriminating against workers solely on the grounds they use medical marijuana.

One attorney said that provision hasn’t seen any rigorous testing in court, so this case could help define how companies and officials interpret the law going forward.

“I haven’t found much precedent at all on this provision, so it is possible that this case may end up setting precedent,” said Daniel A.Taroli, an attorney with the Wilkes-Barre law firm Rosenn, Jenkins & Greenwald. He’s also on the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Medical Marijuana and Hemp Law Committee.

That section of the law also makes clear that employers are not compelled to break federal law.

Marijuana remains a schedule I drug, deemed illegal by the federal government under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

So when it comes to deciding whether to follow state or federal laws, “I can certainly see employers struggling with the decision,” Taroli said.

Drug screens for medical cannabis patients also rips into patient privacy laws and present a conflict, Goldstein said.

Patients shouldn’t be compelled to reveal facets of their medical history because they tested positive in a drug screen, he said.

“I think in the future, this is going to be a much more important health privacy issue in the workplace,” he said. “We have to discourage patients and employers from throwing out the very strong privacy protections that are already in place for medical therapy and for people.”

Contact the writer:

joconnell@timesshamrock.com

570-348-9131; @jon_oc