Labor Law

Bryan Cavanaugh, Esquire

Hoock’s using her employer-provided computer and email account to send insulting, foul, and obnoxious emails constituted misconduct connected with work. Brittany Hoock v. Missouri Department of Revenue and Division of Employment Security, No. 97683 (Mo. App. E.D., September 4, 2012), Ahrens, J.

 Hoock worked for the Department of Revenue for seven months. Twice she signed an acknowledgement that she would read the Department’s policy manual, which included policies prohibiting personal use of the Department’s equipment and email except for urgent personal matters. Hoock never did. However, every day she logged onto her computer, the computer reminded her that the computer was for business use only. The Department discovered in October 2012 that Hoock had sent 33 personal emails over five days that month. Those personal emails involved vulgar language making fun of another individual. Evidently, that individual’s house and car had been vandalized, and Hoock’s emails made fun of that criminal conduct as well. The Department terminated Hoock’s employment because of those emails.

Hoock filed for unemployment benefits, and the deputy granted her claim. The appeals tribunal affirmed, holding that Hoock did not knowingly violate the personal email policy because she had never actually read it and because personal email use was common practice at work. The commission also affirmed, characterizing the emails as “mean-spirited but innocuous gossip.” The department appealed.

Held: Reversed.
The court of appeals noted that the facts were undisputed, and disagreed with the commission’s conclusion that Hoock’s conduct did not rise to the level of misconduct connected with work, which would disqualify her from receiving benefits. Whether a claimant’s conduct rises to the level of misconduct is a question of law. The court of appeals found Hoock’s conduct rose to the level of misconduct because, “while on the clock and from her professional email address as a public servant of this State, used profanity, insulted a taxpayer, celebrated and potentially encouraged criminal conduct against that taxpayer, caused a warrant to be served on her employer, and wholly disregarded any risk of further harm to the victim, stain on the Department, or damage to public confidence.”  Common practice was no justification. Although an employee generally must knowingly and intentionally violate a work rule, Hoock should not be rewarded for her willful ignorance about the email and computer policy.
Judge Norton filed a dissenting opinion explaining that he would affirm the Commission’s grant of unemployment benefits because, although Hoock’s conduct justified the Department terminating her employment, it did not rise to the level of misconduct.