Landmark Case Could Change Medical Marijuana Landscape

By Shawn Dwyer 03/24/14

A lawsuit filed by a quadriplegic in Colorado could radically alter whether or not an employer can fire someone for using medicinal pot.

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Michael Evans and Brandon Coats. Photo via

After being fired by Dish Network for testing positive for marijuana, quadriplegic Brandon Coats has vigorously pursued a lawsuit for wrongful termination that could have wide-ranging implications for both employers and their employees who use medical marijuana.

Ever since he was 16 years old, Coats has been bound to a wheelchair and suffering from severe involuntary muscle spasms and seizures that stem from a car crash where he was a passenger in a vehicle that crashed into a tree. Now 34, Coats has been a registered medical marijuana user in Colorado since 2009, which has alleviated the spasms and allowed him to get out of bed every morning without pain.

Coats had trouble finding employment due to his condition, but was excited when in 2007 he was hired as a customer service representative by Dish Network. He quickly became a model employee and was routinely in the top five percent of his colleagues, which led to him working in a more prestigious department.

But in 2010, Dish Network chose Coats at random to perform an employee drug test. Even before submitting to the test, he told his employers about his use of medical marijuana outside of work and held firm that he never used on the job. Coats tested positive, as he told his employers he would, and was immediately fired due to the company’s zero-tolerance policy towards drugs.

“It was devastating,” said Coats. “I had that job for three years. I was dependent on that for my life.”

A year later, Coats hired attorney Michael Evans to sue Dish Network for wrongful termination as well as lost wages and benefits. So far, Coats has lost in trial court and in appellate court, both of which ruled that his employer had the right to fire for cannabis use, even though the use occurred outside the office and in a state where medical marijuana was legal.

But earlier this year, the Colorado Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and with that brought new hope to Coats’ plight. A decision in his favor could cause a ripple effect across other states where employees are routinely fired for medical marijuana use.

“This single court case has the ability to fundamentally change policy both in Colorado and nationally as employers and lawmakers grapple with the legal and moral ethics of firing employees for actions that are completely legal under state law,” said Brian Vicente, an attorney and one of the authors of Colorado’s Amendment 64. “This case further highlights the need to change federal law to respect state medical marijuana laws and to treat medical marijuana patients, and responsible adult consumers, with respect and understanding.”

"In Colorado, as long as it does not affect job performance, businesses cannot fire employees for their oxycodone prescription or the glass of wine they had the night before working," Vicente said. "Marijuana consumers and medical marijuana patients are not offered that same protection.”

Ever since being fired from Dish, Coats has been unable to find other employment due to his condition and lawsuit. But he remains determined. “I would love to work," he said. "I feel like I’m a drag on society. It’s a horrible feeling."

"This happened to me," Coats continued. "There’s nothing I can do about it. But what I can do is maybe prevent it from happening to someone else."

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Shawn Dwyer is a writer, editor and content producer living in Los Angeles. You can find him on Linkedin.