Just Cause and Wrongful Termination: Mutually Beneficial

When one hears the terms “just cause provision” or “wrongful termination,” the natural reaction is to associate these terms with protecting employees from being unfairly fired, harassed with unwarranted discipline, or discriminated against by their employers. This is a rather narrow view however, of the true effect of these types of provisions.

A just cause provision is a contract clause which is frequently included in employment contracts. Typically, for an employee to be terminated, or in some cases disciplined, a just cause provision requires  that the employer  supply a legitimate reason related to that employee’s work.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, a just cause provision can provide an employer with just as much insulation from unwanted problems as it does employees.

For example, after it was found that a former head basketball coach at a small college verbally abused his players, assistant coaches, and employees, the institution terminated the coach’s contract. As it relates to employment law, such abuse would surely qualify as “just cause.” At the time of termination, the coach had three years left on his contract and was reportedly going to be paid nearly $1.2 million. Unfortunately, the coach’s contract failed to include a “for cause” termination clause that would have allowed the college to terminate him for this type of behavior. As such, when the coach threatened a wrongful termination and breach of contract lawsuit, the college was forced to pay a sizable settlement.

Indeed, when an employee with a multi-year contract is terminated with no just cause provision, the employer may be liable for a “wrongful termination” and the the remaining term of the contract.

As such, if found in a situation like this, it is critical that you seek expert counsel.

Call Gilbert Law Group today: 631.630.0100

Can An Employee be Fired for Marijuana Use?

With marijuana use becoming legal in an increasing number of states, the courts will become the battleground for deciding whether an employee may be fired for marijuana use. In fact, Colorado’s highest court will decide that very issue in a state where both medicinal and recreational marijuana use have been legalized. The issue: whether a workers’ off-duty, off work-site use of medical marijuana is protected by law. The facts: Brandon Coats is a quadraplegic medical marijuana patient who was terminated from Dish Network after failing a drug test in 2010. Coats never got high at work, but pot’s intoxicating chemical, THC, can stay in the system for weeks. The employer claims that it has a zero-tolerance drug-free workplace policy, and it is therefore irrelevant if Coats was impaired at work.

Coats, 35, was paralyzed in a car accident as a teenager. In 2009, he found that pot helped dissipate violent muscle spasms. Coats was a telephone operator for Dish for three years before he failed a random drug test. He told his supervisors in advance that he would probably fail the test. The lower courts upheld the firing, holding that pot use cannot be considered lawful so long as it violates federal law.

Aside from the narrow issue of state law, there are several important issues in this case. Colorado, like New York and several other states, has a Legal Activities Law which prevents employers from discriminating against employees who engage in off-duty, off work-site activities which are legal. New York also recently made legal the medicinal use of marijuana under certain conditions. Also, under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) as well as New York’s Human Rights Law, Dish’s termination of Coats may constitute unlawful disability discrimination based on his disability.  There is also the issue of reasonable accommodation of Coats’ disability.

It would appear that where workers are employed in nonhazardous jobs, unless there is some negative impact in the workplace, an employee’s marijuana use may not serve as a basis for discharge. Negative impacts may include smoking or ingesting at work, impairment or being ‘hung over’ at work, poor performance linked to the use, or time and attendance issues.

Also, if the employer receives federal funding, condoning known pot use may jeopardize a federal subsidized project, contract, continued receipt of federal funds, or status as a federal agency employer inasmuch as federal law still prohibits pot use.

This case clearly has nationwide implications as it will impact how companies and other employers treat employees who use the drug both medically and recreationally. It will therefore be interesting to see how Colorado’s Supreme Court rules. Stay tuned.