The city of Amsterdam, New York owes nearly $200,000 after firing a medical marijuana patient for failing a drug screening for cannabis, a jury decided in a legal action filed by the dismissed city worker. The jury found that the city had discriminated against Thomas Apholz, a wastewater treatment plant worker who was suspended in February 2020 and later fired after testing positive for marijuana.
“They couldn’t fire him fast enough,” Kevin A. Luibrand, Apholz’s attorney told the Times-Union. “They gave him a termination letter on a Monday that fired him the prior Sunday so he couldn’t present his prescription card.”
New York legalized the medical use of marijuana in 2014 with the passage of the Compassionate Care Act, which went into effect in 2016. State law also grants registered medical marijuana patients disability status, which affords protection from employment discrimination for using cannabis.
Patient Fired After Failed Drug Screening
In 2017, Apholz tested positive for cannabis in a random drug screening but was allowed to keep his job under a “last chance agreement” he signed with the city. Under the terms of the agreement, he was subject to termination for future violations of the city’s drug policies.
Apholz tested positive for cannabis in a random drug screening again in 2020 and was subsequently suspended and eventually fired. He then filed suit in state Supreme Court in Montgomery County, alleging unlawful employment discrimination and failure to accommodate his disability as required by the New York Humans Rights Law.
A year before the second positive drug screening, Apholz had obtained a medical marijuana recommendation for lower back pain. In a five-day trial before Judge Rebecca Slezak, Apholz’s attorneys noted that he only used cannabis in capsule form “in the evening at home when his pain was at its worst” and had never used medical marijuana at work. According to court records, Apholz notified “agents” of the city that he was a certified patient in the state Medical Marijuana Program and had a valid Department of Health certification for a medical marijuana prescription at the time of the drug screening.
The city “was made aware of plaintiff’s prescription multiple times, and therefore his disability, before he was terminated,” court filings state. “Defendant has presented no evidence that plaintiff’s use of marijuana impacted his ability to complete his job duties in any way.”
“The evidence indicates that plaintiff was an effective worker while having his marijuana prescription, and that he can perform his job safely and satisfactorily, and defendant has failed to provide any evidence on the record that plaintiff’s use of marijuana has ever negatively impacted his job performance or placed anyone in danger,” court filings state.
Attorneys for the city argued that Apholz had not properly notified the city’s employee relations director about his disability and medical marijuana prescription as required by city policy. Instead, the city maintained that Apholz had notified city engineer Mike Clark of his medical marijuana registration on March 5, 2020, after he had already been suspended for the second failed drug screening. Additionally, the city’s attorneys claimed that Apholz never presented any affirmation the prescription would not interfere with his performance of his “safety sensitive position” involving the use of large machinery and handling hazardous chemicals.
Jury Finds In Patients’ Favor
The jury reached its verdict on June 30, finding that the city discriminated against Apholz for using medical marijuana and awarding him a judgment of $191,762. He is also eligible to request the judge to order reinstatement to his job and for the city to pay his legal fees.
“The jury found that senior Amsterdam city officials refused to provide Mr. Apholz an accommodation for his medical condition after he informed the city that he had a medical marijuana prescription following a random drug test, and summarily fired him on March 16, 2020 without a civil service hearing and without having any discussions with him about his medical condition,” according to a statement from Luibrand quoted by The Daily Gazette.
Aaron Bloom, the CEO of DocMJ, a medical marijuana physician practice that provides compassionate care to patients, says that the jury’s verdict underscores the importance of laws that protect medical cannabis patients.
“Respecting patients’ medical cannabis rights, particularly in the workplace, is of utmost importance. It is crucial to acknowledge the legitimacy of medical cannabis as a therapeutic option and ensure that patients who rely on it for their well-being are treated with fairness and understanding,” Bloom writes in an email to High Times. “Medical cannabis patients also have a duty to not show up for work under the influence of cannabis in a manner that violates workplace safety. By providing appropriate accommodations and respecting the rights of employees with valid medical cannabis prescriptions, we can create an environment that promotes inclusivity and supports individuals in managing their health conditions effectively.”