CT high court rules UConn wrongly fired employee for getting high at work

Connecticut Supreme Court

CTMIRROR.ORG File Photo

Connecticut Supreme Court

The state’s high court has unanimously decided the University of Connecticut was not justified in firing an employee found getting high on marijuana while on the job, a case attorneys for the state argued would have broad implications for state employees.

The court ordered that the employee be given his job back.

“The grievant’s misconduct was significant,” reads the opinion released Friday. “The misconduct clearly falls within the public policy against illicit drug use in the workplace. Fortunately, however, the grievant’s misconduct did not result in any harm to persons or property. Moreover, given the nature of the grievant’s employment, the misconduct mainly created risks to his own safety, and not to that of vulnerable health center clients or other third parties.”

The case surrounds the arrest of Gregory Linhoff, a skilled maintainer at the UConn Health Center, who was fired after getting caught smoking marijuana in a state vehicle at the beginning of his shift and for possessing three-quarters of an ounce of the drug.

Linhoff pleaded that the punishment was too severe, that he had a solid 15-year work history at UConn and that he brought the drug and pipe to work inadvertantly.

A summary of his defense in the decision reads, “When he realized that a glass pipe in his possession was ‘smelly,’ he decided to smoke the residue in the pipe to eliminate the odor, and at that point was caught by the officer.

His union, the Connecticut Employees Union Independent, SEIU, Local 511, AFL-CIO, fought the 2012 firing, and an arbitrator eventually agreed with the union that firing him was too harsh.

The justices agreed.

“The misconduct at issue was completely unacceptable, and we do not condone it. Nevertheless, its egregiousness was tempered, at least to some degree,” they wrote.

The state’s attorney general didn’t think the firing was too harsh.

The arbitration award “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,” reads a brief to the court from the state.

The justices were not persuaded.

“We disagree with the plaintiff’s contention that the award communicates to other state employees that there are no consequences for engaging in misconduct similar to the grievant’s… We emphasize that public policy based, judicial second-guessing of arbitral awards reinstating employees is very uncommon and is reserved for extraordinary circumstances, even when drug or alcohol related violations are at issue.”

The state had appealed the arbitration decision to Superior Court, and, after a lengthy trial, a judge sided with the state, ruling UConn officials were justified in firing Linhoff, whose job requires the use of complex motorized equipment, the operation of trucks of five tons or greater capacity, physical agility and auditory acuity, as well as access to HVAC, rooftops and fire escapes.

The union argued that Linhoff was “dealing with serious personal struggles” after his wife filed for divorce and he had a cancer scare.

“Defendant believed that smoking marijuana helped to alleviate stress and anxiety,” the union wrote in an appeal to Connecticut’s high court, pointing out that Linhoff was diagnosed with depression and anxiety.

The Supreme Court also ordered that the arbitrator’s decision, which had granted Linhoff back pay, be reinstated.

A spokeswoman for UConn decline to comment on the ruling.

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