Buffalo firefighter loses dream job over medical marijuana use

Marijuana

The question the courts will decide is whether Scott Martin's rights under the Compassionate Care Act trump the rules in the collective bargaining agreement.

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Scott Martin’s dream job was to be a firefighter at his hometown station around the corner from where he went to church.

1st Platoon Truck 14 at Bailey Avenue and Doat Street. The East Side Express.

Martin graduated from Depew High School and joined the Air Force, where he trained to be a specialized firefighter and emergency medical technician. He served a seven-month “traumatic” assignment in an Iraq hot-zone before being deployed to Afghanistan to a firebase near the Province of Khost as part of the Operation Enduring Freedom.

He returned to the Buffalo area in 2005, worked at Pepsi Co., before he decided to follow his dream. He said that despite his anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder from serving at war, he felt physically and mentally prepared to resume his role as a firefighter and EMT, a path blazed by past generations in his family.

In 2009, Martin joined the Buffalo Fire Department, worked at different stations, before he accumulated enough seniority to land his dream job at the 1st Platoon Truck 14.

But he said by late last year his life got turned upside down in a dispute with the city and fire department.

“I lost my dream job, and the way it happened was horrible,” Martin said.

On February 23, the Buffalo Fire Department terminated Martin after a urine sample came back positive for marijuana metabolites in violation of their collective bargaining agreement.

But here’s the rub: Martin is a medical marijuana patient, protected by the state’s Compassionate Care Act. He is medically prescribed marijuana in the form of vapes and capsules to reduce pain, anxiety and PTSD, which the Act considers to be disabilities.

Martin has since filed a grievance through his union, an Article 78 and a civil lawsuit to overturn the city’s decision, all of which are pending.

Whichever side prevails could dictate how government and private employers work with unions to amend collective bargaining agreements to account for the medical use of marijuana, and even recreational use made legal this year.

“To my knowledge, it’s the only one of its kind going on in New York State,” said Martin’s attorney, Dave Holland. “I bring it more as a harbinger of what is the paradigm shift I keep talking about: What is the change in our social appreciation for this medicine that needs to be brought into account in contracts?”

Holland argues that Martin’s protected by the Compassionate Care Act. He said collective bargaining agreements – the contracts between unions and employers- can’t snatch those rights away from people who are legally prescribed medical marijuana.

“He’s been totally eliminated from being a productive citizen in the way he was before and he’s being discriminated against in our opinion and demonized for being a medical cannabis patient, which in fact has proved itself to be extremely valuable,” Holland said.

The City of Buffalo declined to comment on the pending litigation.

A city spokesman wrote in a statement that, “The City of Buffalo, like every municipality, is grappling with changes in laws regarding cannabis use.”

Martin’s background

Martin’s four years of military service took a toll on him.

He was subjected to rocket and terrorist attacks while at a firebase in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. He said he witnessed “unspeakable horrors” during combat that result in bouts of depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

When Martin returned to New York in 2005, he needed some time to “come to terms with what I had experienced and witnessed in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

He spent four years at Pepsi, where he drove a forklift and handled internal logistics in the warehouse.

Despite the trauma that he sustained, his dream of being a Buffalo firefighter at his hometown station burned deep inside him. He said it is in his blood to render help to people in distress, whether it be from fires, accidents or violence.

By 2009, Martin was comfortable to resume firefighting and got hired by the Buffalo Fire Department.

Two years later, the collective bargaining agreement between the city and the Buffalo Firefighters Association union resolved various issues including establishing the protocol for drug testing and drug treatment for firefighters who test positive for illegal substances.

The collective bargaining agreement was amended in 2017, Martin’s attorney said, but the union and city officials failed to account for the passage of the Compassion Care Act three years earlier, which instilled rights to medical marijuana patients.

Meanwhile, Martin continued to wrestle with sleep deprivation and emotional stability caused by his PTSD.

Firefighting is a dangerous job and Martin has sustained serious on-the-job injuries, as well.

In his affidavit, Martin recalls being blown out of a window of a burning structure and ricocheting off a nearby building. On another day, he said he was almost blown off a roof ladder in a wind storm, causing damage to his shoulder.

He has severe, chronic back pain and he did not like how pain pills made him feel. The painful epidural shots in his spine provided short, minimal relief.

So, a doctor recommended he try medical marijuana.

In 2018, he officially became a registered medical marijuana patient.

Finally, Martin said he was getting relief. His life changed for the better. The bouts of anxiety and trauma passed more quickly and were much easier to handle. He no longer need pain pills.

By being a medical marijuana patient, rights were bestowed to Martin that a collective bargaining agreement cannot overrule, his attorney said.

“He discovered that cannabis worked better for him,” Holland said. “And that is a choice that people in preservation of their own mental and physical health should be able to make when it’s legally available to them. And I think that’s what’s the disappointment about the way the fire department has handled this in the City of Buffalo, simply because they felt constrained by the terms of the contract they negotiated years ago.”

How it all went down

On Dec. 22, 2020, Fire Commissioner William Renaldo informed Martin that he was suspended without pay for testing positive for marijuana a week earlier for a random work drug test. He was instructed to seek counseling through the Employment Assistance Plan, and he would have to pass a return-to-duty drug test before coming back.

Martin said he informed the deputy before his drug test that he was a certified medical marijuana user.

“They didn’t know what to do,” Martin said.

“They had a campaign a couple of years ago, you need help, go get help. I went and got help and my therapist put me down this route,” Martin said. “Supposedly, the state law says we’re protected.”

Instead, Martin said the city’s handling of his situation made him feel like an addict.

“I set myself up to go to the counseling they wanted me to go to and I did everything they told me to do and they were satisfied and said I had no problem,” Martin said. “And the next thing you know I am terminated.”

Indeed, on Feb. 23, Renaldo terminated Martin by letter for testing positive a second time for marijuana metabolites.

Martin’s union filed a grievance in March to get his job back plus back pay or benefits for what he deemed an improper termination. His grievance stated that his second test was never sent to, reviewed, or confirmed by a medical review officer as required in the collective bargaining agreement. In addition, the test was part of his medical treatment and should have never made it to the fire department as his return-to-duty test.

If Martin is victorious in his union grievance, he can only be guaranteed a job with the fire department and back pay. He is not guaranteed his same job at Truck 14 or the seniority he accumulated.

In July, Fire Commissioner William Renaldo filed an affidavit that stated the fire department’s drug policy, “is a necessary means of ensuring that firefighters who not only show up to work, but who must immediately respond to calls to fires and other emergencies, are absolutely fit for duty and not under the influence of drugs or alcohol.”

“Allowing enforcement only after a firefighter is impaired or using drugs or alcohol creates a situation where he or she presents a serious danger to the citizens they are sworn to serve and their fellow firefighters,” Rinaldo said in the affidavit. “The City’s approach actively prevents and deters this unsafe situation.”

But Martin said he didn’t use his medical marijuana on the job. In fact, he mostly used it to help with sleep and to reduce anxiety caused by the PTSD.

Article 78 and lawsuit filed

In May, Martin, through his attorney, filed an Article 78 against the City of Buffalo, to get fully restored to his actual position he occupied at Truck 14 before his termination.

Holland, his attorney, said this is the only way Martin can restore his rank and seniority with the fire department at Truck 14. The Buffalo News first covered the Article 78 filing in May.

The city’s argument is that it is constrained by the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, which does not account for the Compassionate Care Act’s allowed use of medical marijuana.

Holland said the Act bestowed protections on Martin and others who are legally prescribed the medicine.

“So, this is where reasonable minds differ,” Holland said. “I would argue they did have options available to them including doing nothing because he was legally authorized to do this.”

“He did go through what was required of the collective bargaining agreement with drug counseling and everything else, even though he was lawfully using this, and it was determined there was no addiction issue or dangers of his use of cannabis as a medical patient.”

Holland said the city also could have cited the anti-discrimination provision within its own collective bargaining agreement with the fire department because the policy contradicts state law. Instead, he said the city chose to discriminate against a medical marijuana patient who has protected interests under the Compassionate Care Act, as well as the civil and human rights laws.

“He’s lawfully doing it,” Holland said. “And to the extent the collective bargaining agreement said to the contrary, it must give way to what the state law is now.”

By the end of September, Holland filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court in Erie County seeking damages for unlawful discrimination, retaliation, and illegal termination.

Holland said the lawsuit is not a “good versus evil” story but a real, very serious question about what the legal rights are of the city, the union and a medical marijuana patient.

“The world has changed in both its appreciation of cannabis and how they want to treat it as medicine,” Holland said. “It’s more than just we’re accepting of cannabis. We’re now realizing the medical validity of it and all that comes into play as a result of it, and collective bargaining agreements may have to be amended, as well.”

Meanwhile, Martin is trying his best to keep it together.

Not only did he lose his dream job, but the city stripped him of his insurance so he can’t even afford to see his therapist.

“They just played kick the can,” Martin said of city leaders. “They’re hoping someone else is going to figure it out.”

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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