Brandon Coats, paralyzed medical marijuana patient, appeals firing

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"Dish says, 'Judge, you can't force employers to keep these people on the payroll,'" Evans maintains. "And we argue, 'Judge, if you don't, you're basically sentencing 175,000 people to the unemployment line'" -- the figure referring to his estimate of the total number of Coloradans who've been approved to use medical marijuana since it became legal to do so.

Dish, for its part, doesn't comment on the specifics of employee matters. But in an e-mail to the New York Times for a 2010 story that mentioned Coats, company spokeswoman Francie Bauer wrote, "As a national company with more than 21,000 employees, Dish Network is committed to its drug-free workplace policy and compliance with federal law, which does not permit the use of marijuana, even for medicinal purposes."

According to the original complaint, filed in Arapahoe County District Court and on view below along with several other related documents, Coats, who's in his early thirties, is paralyzed over 80 percent of his body; at age sixteen, he was a passenger in a vehicle that crashed into a tree.

Since then, he's been confined to a wheelchair, but he's fully capable of working -- and in 2007, he was hired by Dish as a customer service representative.

Over the years that followed, the suit contends that prescription medicine Coats took to treat involuntary muscle spasms began to fail. When searching for a way to deal with these symptoms, his physicians recommended that he supplement his regimen with medical marijuana. He received his state-issued license for MMJ in August 2009 and found that cannabis helped alleviate his spasms. However, the complaint stresses that he never used marijuana at work, during work hours or anywhere on the company's premises.

Cut to May 2010, when Coats was ordered to take a random drug test. According to the suit, he told the employee administering the test that he was a medical marijuana patient. But his status wasn't taken into account when he registered a positive reading for THC.

Upon learning of these results a few days later, Coats again noted that he was a medical marijuana patient. In response, the agent sharing the news allegedly said, "That doesn't matter. That is just Colorado state law and does not apply to your job."

Employees in the Dish human resources department were less immediately dismissive, due in part to the quality of his job evaluations.

"We have his performance reviews from all three years, and all of them are satisfactory," Evans says. "He performed well, and he was never high on the job -- and they concede they never determined he was."

Nonetheless, after two weeks, Coats was fired for violating the company's drug policy. "THC can stay in the system for thirty to 45 days," Evans notes, "and they argue that the presence of any THC is grounds for dismissal."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts