By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - Connecticut's highest court said on Friday a state employee who was fired for smoking marijuana at work deserves his job back, rejecting the state's argument that suspending the employee rather than firing him violated public policy.
By a 7-0 vote, the Connecticut Supreme Court ordered the reinstatement of an arbitrator's ruling that Gregory Linhoff, of New Hartford, Connecticut, be suspended for six months without pay and subjected to one year of random drug testing.
Linhoff, a state employee for about 15 years, was fired from his union job as a maintenance worker at the University of Connecticut Health Center, after being caught smoking marijuana in March 2012 in a state-owned van on the Farmington campus.
After the arbitrator voided Linhoff's firing, Connecticut in October 2014 persuaded a lower court judge to restore it, on the ground that a suspension would send the wrong message to others given public policy against drug use in the workplace.
But the Supreme Court said that while it did not condone Linhoff's "completely unacceptable" conduct, firing him was not the only possible response.
Chief Justice Chase Rogers said lesser sanctions can be justified when employees take responsibility for their conduct or can be rehabilitated, or when public safety is not an issue.
She also said courts generally should not invoke public policy as the basis for second-guessing arbitrators' decisions to reinstate employees.
"By the arbitrator's estimation, the grievant's personal qualities and overall record indicate that he is a good candidate for a second chance," Rogers wrote. "Moreover, the discipline the arbitrator imposed was appropriately severe, and sends a message to others who might consider committing similar misconduct that painful consequences will result."
Jaclyn Falkowski, a spokeswoman for state Attorney General George Jepsen, said: "We are reviewing the decision in consultation with our client agency."
Barbara Collins, a lawyer for Linhoff, said in an email her client plans to seek reinstatement.
"A loss would have made every labor arbitration decision involving a discipline vulnerable to attack," she wrote.
Linhoff had said he smoked marijuana to relieve anxiety caused by marital problems and a recent cancer scare.
His union, the Connecticut Employees Union Independent, said he had a good work record with no prior disciplinary problems.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Frances Kerry and James Dalgleish)