Connecticut Public Policy Did Not Mandate Termination of Pot-Smoking Public Maintenance Worker
According to Connecticut’s highest court, the public policy of the state did not require the termination of a state employee who was caught smoking marijuana during work hours. State of Connecticut v. Connecticut Employees Union Independent, (SC 19590) August 19, 2016 (official release date August 30, 2016). Gregory Linhoff, a skilled maintenance worker at the University of Connecticut Health Center, was terminated after a police officer observed him smoking marijuana from a glass pipe in a state van with the door open. Linhoff admitted smoking marijuana and surrendered about three quarters of an ounce of the drug. He was terminated for violating the Health Center’s drug and alcohol policy as well as its smoke-free workplace policy. In particular, the Health Center did not believe that Linhoff could be trusted to perform his duties independently on the evening shift, when he had keys to most of the buildings on the health center campus. Linhoff and his union grieved the termination.
Linhoff was a 15-year employee with no prior performance problems. At the grievance arbitration, Linhoff testified that he sought and completed treatment through the Health Center’s employee assistance program. The arbitrator determined Linhoff engaged in misconduct. However, the arbitrator concluded that termination was too harsh a penalty, citing Linhoff’s positive work history and the Health Center’s drug-free workplace policy, which permitted termination but did not mandate it. Although Linhoff’s job duties raised some safety and security issues, the arbitrator did not believe that Linhoff posed a danger in the workplace. The arbitrator modified the discipline to include a six-month, unpaid suspension and unannounced follow-up drug testing for one year. A trial court granted the Health Center’s application to vacate the award on public policy grounds.
The Connecticut Supreme Court acknowledged the public policy exception to arbitral authority should be narrowly construed. The Court also recognized Connecticut’s “well-defined and dominant” public policy against the possession and recreational use of marijuana in the workplace. The Court then analyzed the four factors set forth in Burr Road Operating Co. II, LLC v. New England Health Care Employees Union, 114 A.3d 114 (Conn. 2015), to determine whether this public policy required the Health Center to terminate Linhoff: (1) guidance from statutes, regulations, and other sources of the public policy at issue; (2) whether the public safety or the public trust is implicated by the employment at issue; (3) the “relative egregiousness” of the conduct; and (4) whether the employee is “incorrigible.”
Emphasizing that the relevant statutes and regulations allowed an “array of responses” to drug-related employee misconduct, and that Linhoff’s maintenance duties did not create a safety risk to the general public, the Court held that public policy did not mandate termination. Additionally, the Court reiterated that judicial second-guessing of arbitral awards reinstating employees is very uncommon and reserved for extraordinary circumstances. Finally, the Court stated that the employer was free to negotiate with the union to mandate termination after misconduct such as that at issue in this case.