A Buffalo, New York firefighter returned to the job this week after reaching a legal settlement in a case challenging his dismissal for using medical marijuana. Scott Martin was fired by the city last year, leading to a lawsuit filed by the firefighter against the City of Buffalo and the Buffalo Fire Department for wrongful termination because of his lawful use of medical marijuana.
This week, Martin announced that he had settled his lawsuit against the city and would be returning to work as a city firefighter. David C. Holland, an attorney representing Martin, says that the legal action was filed to preserve Martin’s rights as a certified and registered medical marijuana patient under New York’s Compassionate Care Act (CCA), human rights law, and civil rights law.
“Scott Martin’s case is significant as it appears to be the first of its kind in the country pitting the rights of a medical marijuana patient, who challenged the adverse employment actions taken against him after submitting a positive drug test, against rights of the City of Buffalo and the Union to bargain away statutorily protected health rights in a collective bargaining agreement (CBA),” Holland writes in an email.
Firefighter Served In Iraq And Afghanistan
Martin, an Air Force veteran who served tours of duty in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, worked as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) specialist with the Buffalo Fire Department for nearly 12 years. But on December 22, 2020, he was suspended under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) after testing positive for marijuana metabolites. Martin said that he used medical marijuana to treat PTSD, insomnia and back pain, according to a report from local media, saying that he preferred cannabis over the opioids prescribed for him. But he maintained that he only used cannabis prior to bedtime and that he had not used cannabis at the firehouse or immediately before reporting for duty.
The termination came despite Martin being properly certified and registered as a medical marijuana patient under New York’s medical cannabis law. Two months following his suspension, Martin was terminated for his continued use of his medical cannabis. Under New York Public Health Law 3369, a medical marijuana patient cannot be discriminated against or disciplined for the lawful use of cannabis.
Martin filed a lawsuit in May 2021, maintaining that the firing violated his rights as a medical marijuana patient. The City of Buffalo and the Buffalo Fire Department argued that Martin’s use of cannabis, even medical marijuana, was prohibited under the drug testing protocols of a 2011 CBA, which were established three years before the CCA was passed. The New York Supreme Court in Erie County rejected the argument and denied the city and fire department’s request for summary judgment in their favor.
As a result of the settlement, Martin will be reinstated to the Buffalo Fire Department this week, retaining the same rank, seniority, salary and benefits that he held immediately before he was suspended. He will also receive $242,000 in back pay, and the city and fire department will recognize Martin’s status and rights as a registered medical marijuana patient under New York’s medical marijuana law.
“I am glad that I can finally go back to the work I love – protecting the safety of the citizens of the City of Buffalo,” Martin said after reaching the settlement in the case.
Medical Marijuana In The Workplace
“The rights of medical cannabis patients in the workplace is a cutting-edge legal issue. This was a case of first impression. It involved the proper balancing of the rights of the parties to a collective bargaining agreement (employers, employees, and unions) when it comes to medically prescribed marijuana,” Holland said in a public statement. “The parties’ agreement to Martin’s reinstatement and the recognition of his rights under the Compassionate Care Act is a reasonable resolution to this dispute. At the national level, I expect to see parties to collective bargaining agreements come to similar accommodations and resolutions.”
Although the settlement only applies to Martin, Holland, who serves as the executive and legal director of Empire State NORML, the New York State affiliate of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), believes the agreement could serve as a model for other cities and towns in New York and around the country.
“While the parties have resolved and settled their differences, the legal question still remains regarding the superiority of rights in the battle between municipalities and unions and the limits, if any, on their power to collectively bargain versus those created by statute for medical cannabis patients whom the legislature specifically protected against adverse employment action due to the mere stigma of their status as a patient under the Compassionate Care Act,” Holland writes. “I believe Scott Martin’s willingness to stand up for his rights and frame the question of which party has superior rights under the law will be a question visited by municipalities, unions, and employees across the nation, as some 41 states have now legalized cannabis in some form as a legitimate form of medicine against which draconian disciplinary action should not be allowed merely because of past propaganda and stigma.”
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