Thursday, October 6, 2011

Willful Misconduct Required for Unemployment Comensation Denial

Pennsylvania Unemployment Compensation law says workers are not eligible for unemployment compensation benefits if the unemployment is due to termination for willful misconduct.

The case of Grieb v. Unemployment Comp. Bd. of Review, 827 A.2d 422 (Pa. 2003), gives a real world example of how this can affect your application for unemployment benefits.

The State College Area School District employed Grieb as a part-time gym teacher. The school had a policy prohibiting the possession of weapons on school property.

On September 14, 1999, Grieb was in the process of moving to a new home after losing hers by eminent domain. Her packed car included books, lamps, clothing, CDs, and three unloaded shotguns. One shotgun was placed on the back seat of her car and the other two shotguns on the floor of her vehicle. Grieb said that she left these items in the car overnight because it was raining when she arrived at her new residence and she intended to unload the items before leaving for work the next morning.

As luck would have it, the following morning, the school unexpectedly called Grieb asking her to fill-in for another teacher immediately. Grieb agreed and went to school, forgetting about he guns in her car. Grieb parked her car in the staff parking lot and locked her doors. A few hours later, a custodian parked next to Grieb's, saw the guns and and alerted the school. The school then suspended Grieb without pay.

Grieb applied for unemployment benefits. The unemployment Referee, however, found that Grieb violated the school’s Weapons Policy and had no justification for her actions. Grieb was denied unemployment benefits under the theory that she had engaged in willful misconduct, rendering her ineligible for compensation pursuant to Section 402(e). The Board affirmed the Referee's decision and the Commonwealth Court affirmed the decision of the Board. The Commonwealth Court also held that Grieb violated the school’s Weapons Policy.  Fortunately, Grieb appealed again and the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania overturned the initial determination and awarded her unemployment compensation benefits.

The Supreme Court noted "willful misconduct" in the unemployment compensation context means: (a) wanton or willful disregard for an employer's interests; (b) deliberate violation of an employer's rules; (c) disregard for standards of behavior which an employer can rightfully expect of an employee; or (d) negligence indicating an intentional disregard of the employer's interest or an employee's duties or obligations. The bottom line being that willful misconduct must have some willful/intentional aspect to it. An honest mistake is not willful.

Though I don’t see how negligence can ever be intentional, the Court pointed out that employee's negligence is willful misconduct only where it is off the charts unreasonable (my language), shows a wrongful intent, or evil design, or that the action was in complete disregard of the employer's interest or of the employee's duties and obligations to the employer. An employer canNOT prove willful misconduct by simply showing that an employee committed a negligent act, but instead must present evidence indicating that the conduct was of an intentional and deliberate nature. Furthermore, a determination of whether an action constitutes willful misconduct requires a consideration of all of the circumstances, including the reasons for the employee's noncompliance with the employer's directives.

So, Pa. Stat. Ann. tit. 43, § 802(e) holds that a claimant cannot receive unemployment benefits if her actions involve willful misconduct. On the other hand (important for workers!) if an action does not involve willful misconduct, the claimant must receive benefits.

If the circumstances for your work termination were less than straightforward and your employer fights your application for benefits, call an attorney immediately.

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