Labor Law

Editor:
Raven Akram, Esquire

Employee discharged for calling employer a liar and telling boss’s wife to be quiet found eligible for employment benefits because his behavior did not constitute misconduct.  Scott v. Division of Employment Security, No. 74587 (Mo. App. W.D., September 4, 2012) Hardwick, J.

Richard Scott was employed as head mechanic by CEMO lanes, a bowling alley. 10 months into his employment, Mr. Scott questioned the owners of the bowling alley about the extent of his job and his authority. Mr. Scott believed that he would have input into how the bowling alley was being run and told the owners that he believed he had been lied to since the beginning about his job. The wife of one of the owners interrupted the conversation on unrelated topics and Mr. Scott told her to be quiet because it was none of her business. When the owner’s wife interrupted a second time, Mr. Scott again told her to leave the conversation and that it was none of her business. Mr. Scott was immediately discharged for disrespecting the owner’s wife. Mr. Scott subsequently filed a claim for unemployment benefits with the Division of Employment Security.

The Division of Employment Security denied Mr. Scott’s claim on the basis that his employment was discharged for misconduct in that he was verbally abusive to the owner’s wife. Mr. Scott appealed to the Division’s appeals tribunal. The appeals tribunal upheld the Division’s decision to deny Mr. Scotts unemployment benefits because it found Mr. Scott was impolitic and blunt for essentially calling his employer a liar and that Mr. Scott was rude and unwise for brusquely telling his employer’s wife to stop talking and leave the conversation. The appeals tribunal characterized Mr. Scott’s statements as hostile, injurious, insulting and destructive and concluded that his behavior amounted to misconduct, warranting the denial of unemployment benefits. Mr. Scott appealed to the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission, which affirmed the appeals tribunal’s decision. Mr. Scott then appealed the Commission’s determination.

Held: Reversed and Remanded.
Unemployment benefits can be denied to a former employee who was discharged for misconduct. Misconduct requires a culpable intent on the part of the employee. Willful misconduct is established by an employee’s action or inaction that amounts to conscious disregard of his employer’s interests or constitutes behavior contrary to that which an employer has a right to expect from an employee. However, poor workmanship, lack of judgment, or the inability to do the job does not disqualify a claimant from receiving benefits on the basis of misconduct. While an employee’s behavior may justify his termination, there is a vast distinction between conduct justifying an employee’s termination and misconduct precluding unemployment benefits.

The court of appeals found that Mr. Scott’s statements to the owners and the owner’s wife were blunt and rude but were not the result of anything more than a simple lack of judgment. The court noted that the issue with regard to Mr. Scott’s statements was whether, in making those statements, Mr. Scott deliberately disregarded the standard of behavior his employer had the right to expect from him or was culpably negligent.

The court found that there was no evidence to suggest that Mr. Scott had any improper motive for making his statements. He simply chose his words poorly. Although Mr. Scott phrased his desire to clarify the extent of his job authority in a blunt and impolitic manner, there was no evidence that his statement (that he felt he had been lied to), was the result of anything more than poor judgment. Likewise, there was no evidence that Mr. Scott twice telling the owner’s wife to stop talking and to leave the discussion because it was none of her business was the result of anything more than Mr. Scott choosing his words poorly. Mr. Scott told the owner’s wife that the discussion was none of her business because he wanted to discuss the business issues with the owners and wife had interrupted on unrelated topics. Instead of showing misconduct, the evidence indicated only that Mr. Scott’s statements, while blunt and rude, were the result of poor judgment, and did not constitute disqualifying misconduct. Mr. Scott’s discharge may have been justified but there was no evidence that Mr. Scott deliberately disregarded his employer’s interests or his obligations as an employee. As such, the court found the commission erred in finding Mr. Scott’s statements warranted a denial of his unemployment benefits and remanded the case for the entry of an appropriate award.