Proving Willful Misconduct in UC Cases: Specificity Required!
In the recent matter of Lewis v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 42 A.3d 375, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania has reinforced the standard of proof necessary to render an unemployment compensation claimant ineligible for benefits.
The claimant in Lewis (hereinafter “Claimant”), allegedly got into an argument with a co-worker which became loud and each made claims of superior toughness to the other. Claimant was suspended for his behavior and later terminated. It is notable that despite the apparent loud nature of the argument described above, there were no customers present and the employer was closed for the night. Additionally, Claimant never made any threats or used profanity or offensive language, and testified to getting “loud” in retaliation to his co-worker’s raised voice.
The Unemployment Compensation Service Center, Referee, and Board of Review all found Claimant to have willfully violated the employer’s work rules to cause his own termination and, therefore, was found to be ineligible for benefits; the Commonwealth Court disagreed.
At the Referee’s Hearing, the employer brought only one witness who testified that the employer has rules and regulations and a harassment policy which Claimant allegedly violated which led to his termination. Claimant also provided testimony at the hearing to supplement the two written statements he made to his employer beforehand.
In reviewing the case, the Court noted that an employee’s willful misconduct is behavior which is a wanton and willful disregard for the employer’s interests, a deliberate violation of the employer’s rules and/or behavior the employer can reasonably expect, or behavior so negligent it manifests a certain culpability on the part of the employee. The burden to prove the above is on the employer, as well as the burden to prove that a claimant knew (or should have known) of the work rule at issue. If the employer can prove the above, a claimant must then prove a justifiable reason to have broken the rules in order to be eligible for benefits.
When comparing the evidence present at the Referee’s hearing (i.e.: the one employer witness and Claimant’s testimony and statements described above), the Court found that the employer never once identified any rule or policy actually broken by Claimant, or provided documentary evidence of the existence of the policy. Furthermore, there was no evidence, or even finding from the Board of Review, that Claimant even knew of the applicable (if any) rules of the employer.
Therefore, due to the complete absence of any evidence or proof that Claimant knew of a work rule, and subsequently willfully broke it, the employer simply did not meet its burden of proof, rendering Claimant eligible for benefits.
May this case serve as a reminder to employers: no matter how simple a case appears, or “informal” an unemployment compensation referee’s hearing seems, the burden of proving a claimant’s ineligibility lies on the employer, and it is a burden the Court takes seriously.
Originally published in Upon Further Review on February 28, 2013 which you can see here.