Does the state have "just cause" to fire an employee who misuses his work computer by accessing shopping websites, and two websites where you can purchase hallucinogenic mushrooms? That is the question that was answered in the affirmative, albeit indirectly, by the Connecticut Supreme Court, in a decision to be officially released on August 5, 2008.
In McCann v. Department of Environmental Protection (download here), a state worker had been fired for allegedly misusing his work computer, particularly after being warned to get his own computer for personal use. The matter was arbitrated and an arbitrtor upheld the termination.
On appeal, however, the trial found that the arbitrator abused his discretion and made factual errors.
The Supreme Court, however, reversed that decision and upheld the arbitrator’s decision:
We conclude that the arbitrator’s findings reasonably support a conclusion that the plaintiff had misused the department’s laptop computers and had violated the department’s policy against using computers for personal purposes. In turn, these findings support a conclusion that the plaintiff had engaged in misconduct under article fifteen, § 4 (C), of the collective bargaining agreement by wilfully misusing state equipment and deliberately violating a department rule. Accordingly, we conclude that the arbitrator’s conclusion that the plaintiff was terminated for just cause was not in manifest disregard of the law.
The decision, while not as ground-breaking as some of its decisions earlier this year is notable for several reasons.
First, for state workers who have collective bargaining agreements with similar language, this case should put them on guard that using state computers for personal use (even visiting the L.L. Bean website, as the court references) may be a terminable offense.
Second, for employers (both public and private), this case demonstrates that a clear and enforced policy of appropriate computer usage may be upheld by the courts as grounds for "just cause" to terminate employees. This is particularly important for employers who have or are considering collective bargaining agreements. It also shows the need for employers to have such policies as well.
Last, the decision shows that the Connecticut Supreme Court takes a hands-off view of arbitrators decisions. The Court is obviously giving a great deal of leeway to the decision. It’s a reminder that if parties agree to arbitrate a decision, seeking relief in the Connecticut courts to overturn that decision will be an uphill battle.