A maintenance worker was caught smoking pot on the job. His employer fired him, but an arbitrator said he should get a six-month suspension without pay instead. The employer appealed. At issue before the state’s supreme court: Is this worker’s job “safety sensitive”?
Gregory Linhoff worked in maintenance at the University of Connecticut Health Center. He worked there 15 years, had not been the subject of any discipline, and his performance evaluations had always ranged from satisfactory to excellent.
On March 7, 2012, while working the 4 p.m. to midnight shift, he was caught smoking marijuana less than two hours into his shift.
Linhoff admitted he was smoking pot. He surrendered two bags containing three-quarters of an ounce of marijuana. On June 22, 2012, he was fired as a result of the incident. His employer said Linhoff had violated the health center’s rules of conduct that included a drug-free workplace. The health center’s director of labor relations said Linhoff could no longer be trusted to perform his duties in an acceptable manner.
Linhoff contested his firing and requested an arbitration hearing which was an option included in a collective bargaining agreement.
The health center’s director of labor relations testified at the hearing that Linhoff had keys and access to most of the health center campus, including the day care center, research labs and the hospital. The director said Linhoff couldn’t be trusted to work independently on his regular evening shift.
Linhoff testified he had brought his marijuana to work inadvertently and when he realized the glass pipe he also had in his possession was “smelly,” he decided to smoke the residue in the pipe to eliminate the odor.
He also explained that he’d recently experienced some stressful life events, including a cancer scare and marital problems. Linhoff went to an employee assistance program and sought treatment. He also sought therapy after being diagnosed with anxiety and depression.
The arbitrator concluded that Linhoff had engaged in misconduct and that his explanation why he was smoking pot at work was disingenuous. However, the arbitrator concluded that under the circumstances, firing wasn’t the correct action. The health center’s rules permitted termination for violating the drug-free workplace plan but didn’t mandate it. Linhoff had a positive work record, had pursued therapy on his own and, according to the court record, “evidenced some level of self-awareness … [about] the seriousness of his offense.”
Linhoff’s job duties did raise some safety and security issues, according to the arbitrator, but they didn’t meet the standard for a “safety sensitive” position. Citing the principle of progressive discipline, the arbitrator imposed a six-month suspension without pay, random drug and alcohol testing for one year, and the condition that his return to work should be considered a “last chance” so that any future violation would result in his firing.
The health center appealed the arbitrator’s decision. A trial court overturned the arbitrator’s decision. Linhoff appealed that decision, and the Connecticut Supreme Court took up the case.
Did arbitrator’s decision violate ‘public policy’?
The state supreme court said at issue in this case was whether the arbitrator’s decision violated public policy. To do that, the court first had to define what public policy was regarding pot use at work. Among the facts found by the court:
- Marijuana remains a schedule II controlled substance, therefore its possession is against the law, and
- The health center’s policy is that use of illegal drugs while on duty can lead to a reprimand, suspension or firing.
The court said it had to determine whether Linhoff’s situation required his firing.
The health center’s policy referenced the federal Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 which includes “up to and including termination” as a punishment for drug use on the job.
Also, previous case-law seemed to open the possibility that firing in Linhoff’s case wasn’t required. The U.S. Second Circuit Court had ruled an arbitration decision that reinstated a Connecticut skilled nursing facility employee after a seven-month unpaid suspension for workplace possession of pot with the intent to distribute didn’t violate public policy.
Therefore, the Connecticut Supreme Court found:
“In sum, the relevant sources of public policy do not support the conclusion that such policy is offended by discipline short of termination for a state employee’s use of marijuana in the workplace.”
Whether Linhoff’s case had a significant effect on public safety was also considered by the court. It noted that when arbitration cases involving discipline less than firing have been rejected by courts for safety reasons, it’s been for employees working in fields such as law enforcement, education, transportation and health care – fields that “cater to vulnerable populations of help ensure the public safety.”
The Connecticut Supreme Court found in Linhoff’s case there was no indication his job duties substantially impacted public safety. “Although hospital patients are a vulnerable population,” the court wrote, “there is no finding by the arbitrator, or even any allegation by [the hospital], that [Linhoff’s] maintenance duties involved contact with patients.”
So the state’s highest court overturned the trial court and ruled that the arbitrator’s decision be reinstated. Linhoff wouldn’t be fired. Instead, he’d have six months without pay and have to submit to the other conditions, including random drug testing, when he returned to his job.
What do you think about the court’s decision? Let us know in the comments.
(State of Connecticut v. Connecticut Employees Union Independent et al., CT Supreme Court, No. SC 19590, 8/30/16)