As we all know, cannabis remains a federally controlled substance, and therefore illegal at the federal level. However, most states have some form of legalization. I have always advised my cannabis business clients to comply with both state and federal laws when it comes to employment laws. It seems to be the safest bet to ensure cannabis companies are not sued by employees for violating federal laws, and it seems to be the smart move in terms of keeps the feds out of their state legalized cannabis businesses.
Recently, a lawsuit arose in the Tenth Circuit challenging whether the Federal Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was meant to provide wage and hour protection to employees of cannabis businesses. In Kenney v. Helix TCS, Inc., the Tenth Circuit will decide whether the FLSA applies to such businesses. The FLSA sets federal wage and hour requirements and sets the standards for when employers must pay employees overtime wages.
In the litigation at issue, Helix TCS, INC. (“Helix”) provides security services to cannabis businesses. Kenney, an employee of Helix, was classified as an exempt employee, meaning Helix did not pay him overtime pursuant to the requirements of the FLSA. Kenney brought suit against Helix claiming he was misclassified as exempt and should have been paid overtime.
Helix moved to dismiss the case, arguing that Kenney was not entitled to the protections of the FLSA because cannabis was entirely forbidden under the CSA. The district court denied the motion to dismiss but certified the ruling for immediate appeal to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.
On Appeal, Helix contends that its employees are not entitled to the protections of the FLSA. Helix’s main argument is that all participants in state recreational marijuana industries assume the risk that their activities will subject them to federal criminal sanctions and therefore they are not entitled to benefits under federal law, and cannot expect federal court to aid their conduct. Essentially Helix is arguing that the federal government would be assisting employees in drug trafficking if they afforded the employees the protections of the FLSA.
It remains to be seen whether the Tenth Circuit will buy Helix’s argument (and whether any of Helix’s remaining employees will want to stick around, for that matter). Helix clearly has the means to fight Kenney’s allegations. Perhaps Helix’s costs will increase substantially if they must pay all security guards overtime and litigation makes sense for them. However, litigation is extremely expensive, and Helix will have to balance those two issues as it proceeds.
In the meantime, best practices are to ensure your cannabis business is paying employees correctly under both state and federal wage and hour laws. If you pay your employees what they deserve, that alone may save you from a lawsuit. That sounds much better than fighting a wage and hour claim through the federal court of appeals.