In an opinion dated Aug. 30, 2016, the Connecticut Supreme Court unanimously upheld an arbitrator's decision that the termination of a state employee for smoking marijuana on the job was too harsh a punishment and ordered that the employee be reinstated, reversing a trial court decision.

The case stemmed from a March 7, 2012, incident where Gregory Linhoff, employed by the University of Connecticut Health Center as a skilled maintainer, was arrested smoking marijuana in a state van on Health Center grounds during his work hours and fired by the university as a result. (The criminal charges were later dropped.)

The university sent him a letter of termination on June, 22, 2012, which, according to the court opinion, explained that Linhoff “had violated the Health Center’s rules of conduct, alcohol and drug-free workplace policy, and smoke-free workplace policy, and that the incident was considered to be serious.”

An arbitrator subsequently ruled in Linhoff’s favor, reinstating him to his position, though not without penalties, including a six-month suspension without pay.

The State of Connecticut then filed an application to vacate the arbitrator’s award, and the state employee union defending Linhoff filed a cross application to confirm that award.

On Oct. 6, 2014, the trial court ruled in favor of the state. The defendant then filed an appeal with the state Appellate Court, which was then transferred to the Supreme Court.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court noted that despite the fact that Linhoff engaged in significant misconduct, and that the misconduct “clearly falls within the public policy against illicit drug use in the workplace,” his actions “did not result in any harm to persons or property,” and “mainly created risks to his own safety, and not to that of vulnerable Health Center clients or other third parties.”

The ruling does not mean terminating an employee for on-the-job drug use would be an inappropriate course of action.
The court stated further that “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.”

What Employers Need to Know

“The Supreme Court’s ruling reflects deference to the arbitrator’s decision, which was based, in part, on the particular circumstances surrounding the case,” says CBIA HR Counsel Mark Soycher, “including the fact that the grievant had served in his position for 15 years with an excellent work record.

Soycher points out, however, that the ruling certainly does not mean terminating an employee for on-the-job drug use would be an inappropriate course of action for an employer to take.

“Although not an element in this case, even the 2012 state law sanctioning use of medical marijuana in accord with a medical prescription specifically defers to workplace policies prohibiting use during work hours, including an employer’s ability to discipline an employee for being under the influence at work.”

“Having an official, written workplace policy against illicit drug use—with termination as a probable consequence—is is still highly advisable, particularly when it comes to occupations where safety is a concern.”