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Connecticut Supreme Court Says You Can’t Smoke Marijuana at Work But it’s Not a Capital Offense

We previously wrote about Gregory Linhoff, an employee at the University of Connecticut Health Center, who was caught smoking marijuana in his employer issued van while at work. Not surprisingly, the Health Center terminated his employment.  Mr. Linhoff was a member of the Union, and the Union filed a grievance to contest the discharge.

During the arbitration, Mr. Linhoff explained his marijuana use at work. He testified he inadvertently brought the marijuana to work and upon discovering it he realized he and his co-worker had time to kill between projects – so they smoked it.  He claimed his conduct would be excused because he had recently experienced several stressful life events: a cancer scare and marital problems and had been for a therapy session at the Connecticut Anxiety and Disorder Treatment Center.  The arbitrator found Mr. Linhoff’s justification disingenuous.

However, the arbitrator concluded that under the circumstances Mr. Linhoff’s discharge did not correspond with the notion of just cause. Relying on, in part, notions of progressive discipline, the arbitrator concluded termination was unwarranted.  The arbitrator also noted Mr. Linhoff was a long time employee with no other infraction.  Therefore, the arbitrator ordered Mr. Linhoff suspended for 6 months without pay and a year of random drug testing while at work.

The Health Center filed an application to vacate the award. The trial court vacated the award finding in essence that reinstating Mr. Linhoff sent the wrong message – that somehow personal stress allowed misconduct at work.

The Union appealed. Before the Supreme Court, the question presented was “whether the arbitrator’s award reinstating the grievant to employment after a lengthy unpaid suspension, with various conditions violates public policy.”  The Court held it did not.

The Court noted Connecticut has a well-defined public policy against the use of marijuana although it did not acknowledge the State’s attitude has changed in recent years. The Court then examined four factors to determine whether termination of employment is required to vindicate public policy violations.  The factors were: (1) guidance offered by the relevant statutes, regulations and other embodiments of the public policy at issue; (2) whether the employment at issue implicates public safety or the public trust; (3) the relative egregiousness of the grievant’s conduct; and (4) whether the grievant is incorrigible.

As for the first factor, the Court looked to the state and federal Drug-Free Workplace Policy Acts that do not require termination for drug related misconduct in the workplace. For the second factor, the Court found that while Mr. Linhoff was a public employee, his position as a skilled maintainer, did not substantially implicate public safety.  For the third factor – the egregiousness of the conduct – the Court found his misconduct was serious.  Mr. Linhoff smoked marijuana during working hours near the beginning of his shift and he brought it to purposefully use it while at work. However, based on the nature of his position, the risks were only to his safety not that of others.  As for the final factor, the Court noted that Mr. Linhoff had no prior disciplinary record and had been to therapy.  He seemed to appreciate the seriousness of his actions.   Therefore, the Court found the factors did not require discharge to vindicate public policy.

The Court also made clear that its deference to the arbitrator’s determination was vital to preserve the effectiveness of the arbitration forum. Therefore, the Court reversed the trial court’s decision and directed the arbitrator award be reinstated.

For employers, this case illustrates the power of arbitration and the huge deference arbitrators receive from courts. While the facts in this case – marijuana while at work –are headline worthy – the real take away is that arbitration is a serious venue for dispute resolution with little opportunity for review.  Therefore, when considering whether to include an arbitration clause in any agreement, Employers should recognize the deference the Court gives to arbitrators.  Whether or not this lack of review is a worthwhile cost is something each employer must decide.

Brody and Associates regularly advises its clients on matters involving arbitration and other areas of alternative dispute resolution. If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203.454.0560.