Monday, July 7, 2014
S.C. Takes Narrow View of ‘Misconduct’ in Unemployment Case
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
An employee who was fired for insubordination after he refused to sign a disciplinary notice may have been guilty of bad judgment, but did not commit work-related “misconduct” that would preclude him from receiving unemployment benefits, the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled Thursday.
Contrary rulings by a claims examiner, an administrative law judge, a Sacramento Superior Court judge and the Third District Court of Appeal are inconsistent with the applicable regulations and precedent, Justice Marvin Baxter concluded.
The claimant in the case, Craig Medeiros, drove a vehicle for Paratransit, Inc. for about six years. In February 2008, a passenger complained that she had been harassed, and the company suspended Medeiros for two days, rejecting his explanation as to how the incident transpired.
Admission of Guilt
Medeiros refused to sign a notice stating the reason for the suspension, saying it would constitute an admission of guilt. When his supervisor told him that it wasn’t an admission, merely an acknowledgment of receipt, he said he didn’t believe him and asked to have a union representative present.
He was told that he had no right to union representation at the meeting, and that refusal to sign the notice would be considered insubordination. He later told the ALJ that he was tired and upset during the meeting, and that he left thinking that because he did not sign the notice, the meeting would be rescheduled and he would have time to consult with the union.
Instead, he was fired without further warning.
His application for unemployment compensation was denied by the Employment Development Department, which he had been fired for work-related misconduct. The ALJ agreed, but the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board sided with Medeiros on a split vote, saying he was guilty of no more than “a simple mistake or an instance of poor judgment.”
The employer filed a writ petition in superior court, and won, and the Third District Court of Appeal affirmed in a 2-1 decision.
Baxter, however, in his opinion for the Supreme Court, cited Amador v. Unemployment Ins. Appeals Bd. (1984) 35 Cal.3d 671, which interpreted “misconduct” in Unemployment Insurance Code §1256 as meaning “conduct evincing such wilful or wanton disregard of an employer’s interests as is found in deliberate violations or disregard of standards of behavior which the employer has the right to expect of his employee, or in carelessness or negligence of such degree or recurrence as to manifest equal culpability, wrongful intent or evil design, or to show an intentional and substantial disregard of the employer’s interests or of the employee’s duties and obligations to his employer.”
The employee in Amador was a histotechnician fired by a hospital for refusing to perform a procedure she believed would jeopardize the patient’s health. The Supreme Court ruled that this was not misconduct, since the plaintiff’s belief was reasonable and based on facts known to her at the time.
Baxter also noted that under EDD regulations, insubordination is considered misconduct if the employee’s refusal to obey his or her superiors is “without justification,” but is not misconduct if the worker has “a reasonable and good-faith doubt of the authority of the individual issuing the order,” if the order is unreasonable in specified ways, or if the worker made “good faith errors in judgment or discretion.”
In Medeiros’ case, the justice said, it was reasonable for the employee to believe, given the totality of the circumstances surrounding the meeting, that signing the notice would be an admission of guilt, even though the belief was erroneous. Mere oral assurance to the contrary was insufficient to render the belief unreasonable, the justice added, since the contents of the written notice were uninformative on the issue.
Other states’ courts, Baxter added, have reached similar conclusions.
The case is Paratransit, Inc. v. Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board (Medeiros), 14 S.O.S. 3399.
Copyright 2014, Metropolitan News Company