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Teacher Owed Back Pay After Pot-Fueled Firing

(CN) - A teacher who was fired and then reinstated amid accusations that she drank wine and smoked marijuana is entitled to back pay with interest, a Hawaiian appeals court ruled.

Kathleen Morita was teaching at Hauula Elementary School in September 2007 when a custodian reported the smell of marijuana coming from her classroom. He also reported what he thought was a bottle of wine in a paper bag.

After an investigation, the state of Hawaii's Department of Education fired Morita in July 2008.

Her case went to an arbitrator, per the state's agreement with its collective bargaining agreement with Morita's union, the Hawaii State Teacher's Association.

The arbitrator sustained Morita's grievance, determining that the state lacked just cause to fire her. She was restored to her position with interest and back pay.

A circuit court confirmed the arbitrator's award in Morita' favor but deleted the 10 percent interest on her back pay. The union appealed.

In a decision written by Judge Katherine Leonard, the Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals reversed the lower court's ruling and restored the interest on Morita's back pay.

"We reject the state's argument that the arbitrator exceeded his powers," Leonard wrote. "The arbitrator was expressly authorized to award 'back pay to compensate the teacher wholly ... for any salary lost.' He interpreted this provision to allow interest for the time Morita was without pay."

"Even if he incorrectly construed the agreement or misintepreted applicable law, he acted within his power to interpret the agreement and fashion a remedy in accordance with his interpretation," Leonard added.

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