The Connecticut Supreme Court will soon decide whether UConn was justified in firing an employee found getting high on marijuana while on the job, a case the state argues could have broad implications.
The case – which will be argued before the justices on March 31 – surrounds the arrest of Gregory Linhoff, a skilled maintainer at the UConn Health Center, who was fired after he was arrested for smoking marijuana in a state vehicle during work hours.
His union, the Connecticut Employees Union Independent, SEIU, LOCAL 511 AFL-CIO, fought back against the 2012 firing, and an arbitrator sided with the union.
“The dismissal of grievant was not for just cause, but the State did have just cause to impose a substantial penalty on Grievant. Therefore, the proposed penalty of termination shall be modified to a period of unpaid suspension of six months,” ruled State Arbitrator Jeffrey Selchick, pointing out that the employee had favorable performance evaluations and had no previous disciplinary problems.
The state objected.
“This 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 from the state.
The state appealed the decision and after a lengthy trial, a Superior Court 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 argues that Linhoff was “dealing with serious personal struggles” after his wife filed for divorce and 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 he was diagnosed with depression and anxiety.
The union also argues that the behavior was “not sufficiently egregious” to warrant the firing and that Linhoff is “not incorrigible.”
A UConn Health Center police officer testified during the arbitration hearing that he had observed the employee smoking from a yellow pipe. When questioned by the officer, he admitted to marijuana use and voluntarily handed over less than an ounce of marijuana. Criminal charges were later dismissed.