Brandon Coats never sought out to be a lightening rod. All he wanted was a job.
Employment doesn’t come easily to the 35-year-old Denverite who has gone without the use of his arms or legs since a car accident at age 16. He’s used to being edged out of job inquiries by more able-bodied applicants.
About five years ago, Coats found work that fit his disability – a job he took pride in and, by all accounts, excelled at. He answered phones at Dish Network. At first, he helped residential customers pay their bills, adjust their TV reception or make appointments for technicians to fix their equipment. After six months, he was promoted to the commercial department where he handled more complex phone calls for the company’s corporate clients.
Coats had impeccable performance evaluations and was tapped to train new colleagues on customer service.
“There are very few jobs I can do,” he told The Colorado Independent. “It worked perfect with me.”
Then, two and a half years into the job, his name was called for a random drug test. He told human resources that he wasn’t going to pass it. Coats has regular body spasms at night that are eased by marijuana – a drug he has been prescribed for medical use for several years.
A “positive” on his drug test led to his firing, which led to a five-year legal battle and Colorado Supreme Court ruling this morning that upholds his termination and sets case law allowing private, off-duty pot use to be cause for firing, even when the worker isn’t high on the job.
“…Employees who engage in an activity such as medical marijuana use that is permitted by state law but unlawful under federal law are not protected by the statute,” the court ruled in its 6-0 decision upholding an appeals court ruling that found Dish Network lawfully fired Coats.
New data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment show 13.6 percent of Colorado adults (age 18 and older) surveyed in 2014 reported current use of marijuana.
“Today’s decision means that until someone in the House or Senate champions the cause, most employees who work in a state with the world’s most powerful MMJ (medical marijuana) laws will have to chose between using MMJ and work,” Michael Evans, Coats’ lawyer, said in a prepared statement.
“If we’re making marijuana legal for medical purposes we need to address issues that come along with it such as employment,” added Coats. “Hopefully views on medical marijuana – like the ones in my specific case – will change soon.”
Coats didn’t set out to make a political statement with his lawsuit. He and Evans both agree employers should be able to fire workers for pot use – “if they’re doing dangerous jobs or jobs that could physically put other people’s safety at risk.”
“Like driving school buses,” Coats said. “But this wasn’t like driving a school bus. This wasn’t one of those jobs.”
As of last winter, he had gone on more than 60 job interviews since Dish Network fired him. He was turned down for them all, he said, because he needs to disclose the reason for his termination.
“So I’ll keep trying,” he told The Indy. “Somebody out there – somebody with a job to offer – must understand the situation I’m in.”
Photo credit: Jim Ellwanger, Creative Commons, Flickr.