Pot-Linked Firing Deemed Too Harsh in CT

     (CN) — A university maintenance worker who was fired for smoking marijuana on the job should be reinstated, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled, finding that an arbitrator’s six-month suspension was appropriate.
     Gregory Linhoff worked at the University of Connecticut Health Center, where he had not been disciplined in his 15 years of employment.
     However, he was caught smoking marijuana while he was working the 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift on March 7, 2012.
     An officer found Linhoff sitting with a coworker in a van, smoking from a glass pipe. He admitted that he was smoking pot and turned over two bags of it, according to court records.
     Linhoff was arrested, but the charges were dismissed after he identified the person who sold him the drugs.
     Karen Duffy Wallace, the state director of labor relations, wrote to Linhoff that he was fired for violating the health center’s drug and smoke-free workplace policies.
     Linhoff’s union, the Connecticut Employees Union Independent, filed a grievance to contest his firing. He testified that he had smoked the marijuana to alleviate his anxiety from marital problems and a cancer scare.
     The arbitrator considered Linhoff’s explanation to be disingenuous. However, the arbitrator said firing Linhoff under the circumstances was not mandatory, especially in light of his previously positive employment record.
     Instead, the arbitrator ruled that Linhoff should be suspended without pay for six months. He would also be subject to drug and alcohol testing for a year.
     The state appealed, and the trial court overturned the decision. The judge found that reinstating Linhoff would send the wrong message that his personal stress excused his behavior.
     The union took the case to the Connecticut Supreme Court, which turned the tables again and reinstated Linhoff on Friday.
     Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers stated that “the sole issue before us is whether the arbitrator’s award reinstating the grievant to employment after a lengthy unpaid suspension, with various conditions, violates public policy.”
     She found that public policy is not offended by discipline that falls short of termination.
     Instead, sources of public policy “provide for an array of responses and explicitly support efforts at rehabilitation, thereby rejecting the notion that the perpetrator of the misconduct necessarily is incapable of atonement,” she wrote.
     Rogers added that positions like Linhoff’s were not “‘safety sensitive’ positions typically associated with a public policy mandate that absolutely bars reinstatement following an instance of drug use.”
     Justice Carmen E. Espinosa wrote a concurring opinion in which she discussed the court’s 2015 opinion in Burr Road Operating Co. II LLC v. New England Health Care Employees Union, which dealt with a nursing assistant who was disciplined for failing to report suspected patient abuse.
     She said the court should have more flexibility in reviewing cases like Linhoff’s to avoid merely “rubber stamping” the arbitrator by applying the four factors discussed in Burr Road.
     “This court should take the opportunity to temper these trends now before they become increasingly prominent and require much more serious and laborious modifications in the future,” Espinosa wrote.

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