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June 14, 2022
A federal district court in Louisiana, in Huber v. Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Florida, Inc., recently denied an employer’s motion for summary judgment in an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Louisiana Employment Discrimination Law (LEDL) case, finding, among other things, that accounting for and excusing a false positive drug test resulting from extended cannabidiol (CBD) use may be a reasonable accommodation.
Michelle Huber, an IT business analyst who worked remotely for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida, Inc. (BCBS), suffered from recurrent debilitating migraines for which she received an accommodation beginning in 2006 and took frequent leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) from 2014 through 2016. In 2016, Huber was diagnosed with hemiplegic migraines, which cause one-sided weakness and total impairment for up to three days. In 2017, her doctor recommended “non-psychoactive hemp-based CBD oil” to manage her migraines. While using CBD oil, Huber’s migraines improved, and so did her work performance. In fact, Huber was promoted, received “five out of five” performance ratings, and reduced her overall FMLA leave after starting a CBD regimen.
In 2019, Huber was informed that she would be required to take a drug test due to federal contract requirements. Huber reminded her supervisor of her disability, that her medications included CBD oil, and that due to her promotion she was not covered by the federal contract at issue. Huber’s supervisor instructed her to “play along” and take the drug test anyway because the results would not have any bearing on her job. Despite these assurances, the employer terminated Huber’s employment after she failed the drug test for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)—the psychoactive compound in marijuana.
Huber filed suit alleging that BCBS violated the ADA and LEDL by terminating her employment based on her disability, by failing to accommodate her disability, and by intentionally interfering with her rights under the ADA. BCBS filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Huber was not a “qualified individual” under the ADA or LEDL because passing a drug test was a requirement for the job, and that its stated reasons for her discharge—her failing the drug test—was not a pretext for unlawful discrimination. U.S. District Judge Mary Ann Vial Lemmon denied summary judgment on all claims.
The District Court’s Decision
At issue in Huber’s wrongful termination claim was whether she was a qualified individual under the ADA or LEDL. The court found that whether Huber was qualified was a question for the jury because it was not clear that the federal contract applied to her, and even if it did, BCBS had failed to show that she was under the influence of illegal, non-prescribed controlled substances while working remotely. Huber submitted an affidavit averring that she had never used marijuana, and she submitted a letter from her doctor explaining that the CBD oil product she was taking could produce a false positive. BCBS’s medical review officer (MRO) testified the results “were too high to be a false positive,” but its own senior employee relations consultant testified that the MRO did not appear to have considered whether Huber’s fourteen other prescription medications in combination with her chronic health conditions, her body weight, and her extended use of CBD oil over several years could have caused her to metabolize CBD oil at a much slower rate than normal, resulting in the positive result. The court went on to explain that BCBS’s reliance on a 15 ng/mL cutoff for THC was below the low end of Louisiana’s statutory range of 50 – 100 ng/mL for THC concentrations that can have negative employment consequences.
The court also found fact issues regarding whether the reason for discharge—failing a drug test—was pretextual. BCBS argued that it had “accommodated [Huber’s] disability for over a decade,” that she had been granted leave under the FMLA and was able to take time off as needed, and that following the same round of testing that resulted in her discharge, two other non-disabled employees were terminated for positive drug screens, including one who claimed that his test result was a false positive caused by CBD oil. Huber argued that BCBS’s true motivation for her discharge was discriminatory because, she alleged, the company was trying to avoid future healthcare costs for her disability, which had already cost more than $700,000.
The court noted that Huber “pointed to evidence that even if [BCBS’s] proffered reason [were] true, an additional motivating factor could have been [her] disability, which ha[d] required [BCBS] to absorb extensive medical costs.”
“This theory,” the court stated, “together with the issue whether the drug test was actually required for [Huber’s] position, indicate outstanding issues of fact.”
The most interesting issue in the case is the failure-to-accommodate claim. BCBS conceded that Huber was a qualified individual with a disability and that it was aware of the limitations imposed by the disability. BCBS challenged whether it had failed to reasonably accommodate her known limitations. Huber asserted that BCBS had “failed to accommodate her by not allowing her to use medically prescribed, non-pyschoactive CBD oil to manage her migraines.” BCBS countered that argument by asserting that it never restricted Huber from taking CBD and that Huber was asking it to ignore a positive drug test result for THC. Excusing a positive test result is not a reasonable accommodation, BCBS argued, but a form of preferential treatment.
The court found that the accommodation sought by Huber—that she be allowed to use CBD oil to control her migraines—necessarily implied that a false positive caused by the CBD oil would not be held against her. “Thus, for the accommodation to be reasonable,” the court wrote, “[the] defendant must provide some way to account for and excuse a false positive.” The court noted that while BCBS had argued that Huber had been given an opportunity to provide additional information about her CBD use, it was not clear to the court that BCBS had actually considered the additional information provided by Huber to explain her positive test result. The court further stated that the employer had failed to provide a good-faith basis for its conclusion that Huber’s 90ng/mL result was a definitive positive result (not a false positive) though it fell within Louisiana’s statutory range of excusable levels when negative employment consequences might occur based on nanogram level. Accordingly, the court found a fact issue on the reasonable accommodation claim.
Lastly, the court allowed Huber’s ADA interference claim to advance, noting that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has not yet articulated a specific test to state such a claim. The court explained that by using CBD oil to control her migraines, Huber “engaged in the enjoyment of a protected right” and “[a]n implied corollary of that accommodation is that the employer must make allowances for a false positive test caused by the CBD oil.”
First, it is important to keep in mind that this is a case involving the use of CBD oil—not medical marijuana, which has been permitted in Louisiana since 2019 and which is psychoactive because of the increased THC content. Nevertheless, CBD products contain trace amounts of THC (less than 0.3 percent). Because this is a CBD case, and not a marijuana case, the court was not required to reconcile the apparent conflict between the ADA, which does not recognize marijuana as a lawful prescription drug because it is a Schedule I controlled substance under federal anti-drug laws, and the LEDL, which does not replicate the ADA’s treatment of marijuana.
Second, with the growing popularity of CBD oil to treat a myriad of health issues including pain, anxiety, and sleep issues, employers may want to be prepared to address possible false-positive drug screens caused by trace amounts of THC in some CBD oils. Employers also may want to consider how to accommodate false-positive drug tests caused by the use of CBD oils, as explained by the district court. When evaluating a positive drug test for THC, employers may want to consider all relevant facts, including the employee’s medical history.
Finally, employers in Louisiana may want to consider Louisiana’s statutory range of 50 ng/mL – 100 ng/mL for THC concentrations before making negative employment decisions.
Ogletree Deakins will continue to monitor and report on developments with respect to the ever-changing landscape of drug testing in the era of legalized CBD and marijuana, both medical and recreational. Important information for employers is also available via the firm’s webinar and podcast programs.