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Appeals Court to Help Clear Haze Surrounding Jobless Pay Rights of Medical Marijuana Users

Is unemployment pay an entitlement for workers dismissed for using medical pot, or should businesses be protected against claims “for all persons involuntarily unemployed”?

The Michigan appeals court says it will hear the cases of two people denied jobless worker pay after they were fired for legally using medical marijuana. Patch file photo
The Michigan appeals court says it will hear the cases of two people denied jobless worker pay after they were fired for legally using medical marijuana. Patch file photo

Two cases under review by the Michigan appeals court to decide if workers fired for using medical marijuana can collect unemployment benefits could have far-reaching effects on the state’s employer.

The court said this week that it would hear the cases after lower court judges in Ingham and Kent counties reversed a state agency’s decision denying the benefits to  forklift driver in Grand Rapids and a hospital employee in Charlotte, the Detroit Free Press reports.

Attorneys for the state argue there’s much at stake for Michigan’s employers. In briefs, the state said jobless worker pay is not an entitlement “for all persons involuntarily unemployed.”

The issue before the court isn’t whether workers can be fired for using medical marijuana, which became legal after voters approved the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act in November 2008. The law protects workers from wrongful termination, the state’s attorney general’s office argues, but not in civil disputes such as unemployment compensation hearings.

Federal courts have also sided with Michigan employers, ruling in a case involving a Wal-Mart employee that the state’s businesses have that authority.

In court filings before the appeals court in the current cases, the state said the law recognizes employers’ interest in maintaining drug-free workplaces and “thus, workers who are discharged for a positive drug test are disqualified from receiving benefits.”

In his ruling siding with fired hospital worker Jenine Kemp, Ingham County Judge William Collette said the appellant had a valid drug card and used marijuana in a legal way to manage chronic pain from lupus.

Kemp’s attorney argued that his client didn’t show any signs of being intoxicated or under the influence, and the issue only came up after she talked about using medical marijuana, which prompted her employer to require a drug test.

The other worker, Rick Braska, was fired from his job at Challenge Manufacturing Co. after a routine test showed marijuana in his system as he was being checked for an ankle injury three years ago. He also had a drug card and was using marijuana to manage back problems, but was reportedly fired because of violations to the company’s drug policy.

Braska was granted jobless pay by the state’s unemployment agency, but that decision was reversed by Michigan Compensation Appellate Commission. That decision was overturned last yer on technical grounds Kent County Judge Mark Trusock.

The appeals court hasn’t said when it will hear arguments in the two cases.

DISCUSS: Should workers who are fired for using medical marijuana, which has been upheld in federal courts, be allowed to collect unemployment benefits? Tell us why or why not in the comments below.

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