November 10, 2021
MN Supreme Court rules on medical cannabis in work comp
By Peter F. Lindquist, Esq. Defense Counsel with Lynn Scharfenberg and Hollick
The Minnesota Supreme court issued two companion decisions on October 13, 2021 – Musta v. Mendota Heights Dental Center, and Bierbach v. Digger’s Polaris – addressing a burning question on the minds of many in the Minnesota workers’ compensation world: Can an employer and insurer be required to pay for an injured worker to treat their work-related condition with the use of medical cannabis, even if the use of medical cannabis is prohibited by federal law?
In these cases, the Minnesota Supreme Court answered “No.” Due to issues of “federal preemption,” Minnesota employers and workers’ compensation insurers cannot be compelled to violate the federal Controlled Substances Act by providing for an employee’s use of medical cannabis, even if use of medical cannabis a is legal under the Minnesota Medical Cannabis Therapeutic Research Act.
By way of background, the employees in both Bierbach and Musta had been certified to treat their work-related injuries with medical cannabis by their treating doctors. That treatment was unsuccessfully disputed by the employer and insurer in the Bierbach case, but reasonableness and causal relationship was stipulated to in the Musta case. The primary issue in both cases was the federal preemption defense. The compensation judges in both cases found that the Minnesota Medical Cannabis Therapeutic Research Act was not preempted by the federal Controlled Substances Act.
On appeal, the Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals determined that they did not have jurisdiction to decide issues relating to the applicability of federal laws and could not decide the federal preemption issues. They therefore upheld the award of medical cannabis in both cases.
The Minnesota Supreme Court noted that the compensation judges’ order made it impossible for the employers and insurers to comply with both state and federal laws. The Court reasoned that ordering the insurers to reimburse for medical cannabis was tantamount to requiring them to aid and abet the commission of a federal crime. Because the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution states that when “there is any conflict between federal and state law, federal law shall prevail,” the Court ruled that the compensation judge’s order is preempted by the federal law and reversed the appeals court and compensation judge’s award of reimbursement for medical cannabis.
These decisions create a new bright-line rule regarding the compensability of medical cannabis in workers’ compensation claims. Following to these decisions, insurers now have an almost absolute basis to deny a request to reimburse expenses for medical cannabis, as they cannot be required to violate federal law. This applies even if the treatment with medical cannabis is found reasonable and necessary from a medical provider.
The employees in both cases have the right to appeal these decisions to the U.S. Supreme Court, and as of the writing of this article it appears that they are likely to do so. It will be some time before there is any indication as to whether the Supreme Court decides to hear the appeal. Unless the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the Minnesota Supreme Court’s decisions, the only remaining means for the federal preemption defense to be changed or limited would be for U.S. Congress to pass, and the President to sign, legislation modifying the Controlled Substances Act.
Given how divided the federal government and nation have been on the issue of marijuana legalization, I do not think we should expect for there to be any change in this manner for the foreseeable future.