April 20, 2015
Generally speaking and unless an employment contract says otherwise, an employer may discharge an employee for almost any reason or for no reason. However, the employee may still be eligible for unemployment compensation.
Christopher Williams had been working for a decade as a refuse disposal driver for the city of Ruston, La., when, in April 2011, he met with Assistant Public Works Director Ed Pittman and Public Works Director Lewis Love. Their conversation dealt with an alleged affair between Williams’ wife, Sandra, also a city employee, and Williams’ supervisor, Solid Waste Superintendent Dennis Woods. Williams demanded that Sandra and Woods be fired because of the infidelity. But with no allegation that the couple was engaging in sexual activity at work, Pittman and Love informed Williams that his wife and Woods would not be fired.
Apparently recognizing Williams’ awkward situation, the city gave him the option of transferring to another position with the same pay and more chances to advance. He declined. Woods was then removed as Williams' supervisor, and Williams began reporting directly to Woods' supervisor, Jeff Miller. Williams was told not to have any contact with Woods or Sandra at work, and vice versa. Woods and Sandra were permitted to work together, but were directed to limit their communications at work to job-related issues. None of these instructions were put in writing.
In May, 2013, Williams, Woods, and Sandra had an argument in Sandra’s office. Shortly thereafter, Williams was suspended with pay, and the city terminated his employment three weeks later. Sandra was also sacked. The separation notice stated that Williams was let go because he “threatened physical violence against two co-workers after being instructed not to have contact with them.”
Williams subsequently filed for unemployment benefits with the state workforce commission. The commission found that Williams was discharged from his employment because of fighting on duty, but it did not disqualify him because his separation was not for misconduct connected with his employment. Dissatisfied, the city took the decision to an appeals tribunal where an administrative law judge scheduled it for hearing. In August , 2013, a telephone hearing was conducted at the tribunal office.
Jim Liner testified that in June 2011, Williams' garbage truck broke down. Liner arrived at the scene and told Williams that Woods was going to pick him up. Williams became upset, stating, “I want some of that.” and “I wish he'd come get me.” Liner testified that he called Miller, and Miller sent someone else to pick Williams up. Liner reported the incident to his supervisor, Kevin McGivney, that same day. He testified that he had never witnessed Williams “act like that before.”
Pittman, who discharged Williams, testified that he was out of town when Williams committed the “threats of physical violence.” He further testified that McGivney initiated the investigation into the incident, and that he completed the investigation when he returned. Pittman also testified regarding the city's policy, stating that the first offense of physical violence would result in the issuance of a written warning, or a two-day suspension or discharge.
He admitted that Williams was never given any written reprimands or suspensions. He further testified that regarding the policy, “we try to stay close to it but we don't follow it completely.” It was also noted that in Williams' July 2011 performance review, there was no mention of the May 2011 incident.
Woods testified that the May 2013 incident involved him, Sandra, and Williams in Sandra's office. He stated that Williams “come [sic] over to me and started threatening me” that day, and that he did not do or say anything to Williams. Woods denied having any involvement with Sandra. Woods reported the incident to Pittman via telephone.
Janice Turner, who is also a city employee, testified that she was present during argument. She stated that during the exchange between Sandra and Williams, Sandra pointed her finger at Williams. Williams told her to “get her finger out of his face before he slapped her down in front of that boyfriend.” Then, according to Turner, Woods stood up, whereupon Williams told him that “he'd slap him down too.”
On August 23, 2013, the tribunal determined that Williams was eligible for benefits, after finding that “while the employer may have been justified in discharging the claimant, the evidence and testimony in this case are insufficient to show the separation was for an act or acts which would constitute misconduct connected with employment.”
The city appealed this decision to the state board of review, which reversed the tribunal’s decision after finding that the city had proved legal misconduct. Williams appealed the board's decision to state district court, which found that the board’s determination was not supported by sufficient and competent evidence or applicable law, and reinstated the tribunal's decision.
On appeal, the city and the commission argued that Williams was disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits. The three-judge appellate panel disagreed. “For a claimant to be disqualified from benefits because of ‘misconduct connected with his employment’ [under state law] the ‘misconduct’ must have resulted from willful or wanton disregard of the employer’s interest, a deliberate violation of the employer’s rules, or from a direct disregard of standards of behavior which the employer has the right to expect from his employees,” the opinion said.
First, contrary to its employee handbook, the city did not give written instructions to Williams about not contacting Sandra or Woods, nor did it issue a warning, nor did it document the disparaging remarks that Williams allegedly made. Second, his performance reviews were generally excellent. In short, the panel found no error in the trial court’s finding that the “incident here was unpremeditated, isolated and not a willful disregard of the employer’s interest.”
At least in the Bayou State, a display of poor judgment in the workplace—an isolated hotheaded incident—is not sufficient grounds to deny unemployment benefits.
Williams v. Eysink, et al., No. 49,526-CA, Ct.App. La., Mar. 4, 2015
Barry Shanoff is a Rockville, Md., attorney and general counsel of the Solid Waste Association of North America.