On Friday, the highest court in Connecticut unanimously decided that a former employee of the University of Connecticut who had been fired after he was caught smoking marijuana while at work deserved to regain his job. It is a decision that the attorneys who represented the state’s case have stated will have far-reaching implications for all state employees.
In the decision to give Gregory Linhoff, of New Hartford, Connecticut, his job back, members of the Connecticut Supreme Court had a 7-0 vote agreeing that the man’s employers were not justified in firing him for getting caught smoking marijuana while on the job. It is a reinstatement of an arbitrator’s ruling and offers instead of getting fired, Linhoff should be suspended from the University for six months — without pay — and be subjected to a year of random drug tests once he is back at work.
The Supreme Court’s ruling rejected the argument put forth by the state that if the employee was only suspended instead of fired, it would be a violation of public policy.
According to Reuters, Gregory Linhoff is a skilled maintenance worker at the University of Connecticut Health Center, a job which he had held for about 15 years before he was fired for getting caught smoking marijuana at the beginning of his shift back in March 2012. Linhoff was sitting in a state-owned vehicle on the university’s Farmington campus and was also found to be in possession of three-quarters of an ounce of the drug.
Linhoff’s protest was that his being fired was too severe as a worker with a solid long-term history at his job, and his union, the Connecticut Employees Union Independent, SEIU, Local 511, AFL-CIO, fought the decision to fire him. Eventually an arbitrator did agree with the union that the firing was too harsh. In October 2014 though, after the arbitrator had voided Linhoff’s firing, the state of Connecticut persuaded a lower court judge to restore the decision. The attorney general’s argument was that by only suspending the man, they would be sending the wrong message to other employees given the public policy against drug use in the workplace.
“[The arbitrator’s decision] sends a message to state employees and taxpayers that prohibited drug use on the job will be tolerated. In light of our strong public policies against illegal drug use, possession and impaired driving, the public should expect and demand that State employees refrain from criminal conduct while on duty, and from conduct that jeopardizes the safety of others.”
However, while the Supreme Court does not condone the actions of the man and deemed it “completely unacceptable” conduct, they insist that firing him was not the only response that the university could have taken especially when the employee is willing to take responsibility for their conduct and can be rehabilitated. Chief Justice Chase Rogers said lesser sanctions can also be justified if public safety is not an issue, and in this case it was found that Linhoff posed more of a threat to himself than anyone else.
Rogers also stated that the courts should not have tried to invoke public policy as a basis for second-guessing the decision of the arbitrator to reinstate any employee.
“By the arbitrator’s estimation, the grievant’s personal qualities and overall record indicate that he is a good candidate for a second chance. Moreover, the discipline the arbitrator imposed was appropriately severe, and sends a message to others who might consider committing similar misconduct that painful consequences will result.”
During their report on the decision to reverse the firing of the state employee for his marijuana possession, the Connecticut Mirror stated that the employee did not deliberately carry the drug and the pipe he was using to smoke to his job. Instead Linhoff said he had forgotten they were in the van and when he realized that the glass pipe was “smelly” because of marijuana residue, he decided to smoke the remains to get rid of the odor, and it was at this point that he was caught by the officer.
The employee’s union also argued that he had only been smoking the marijuana in a therapeutic capacity after his wife had divorced him and he had a cancer scare.
The Supreme Court also ordered that the arbitrator’s previous decision to grant Linhoff back pay should also be reinstated. The university declined to comment on the court’s decision.
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