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Illinois Supreme Court Finds that IDES was Mistaken in Denying Unemployment Benefits

In this case, American Airlines looks like a harsh and unreasonable employer. The Claimant was an American Airlines employee who was fired by American Airlines for merely helping a passenger obtain a seating upgrade and also giving the passenger some champagne for the flight.

REASON AMERICAN AIRLINES WAS UPSET: American Airlines decided that the Claimant violated company rules and was guilty of "theft or pilferage of company property" by upgrading the passenger and requesting champagne for the passenger without proper authorization. The employee's actions allegedly cost the airline $7,100.

IDES HEARING DECISION: The Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) agreed (surprisingly!) with American Airlines and found that this employee was guilty of misconduct (and therefore ineligible for unemployment insurance benefits) for violating reasonable and known company rules.

RULING OF THE COOK COUNTY JUDGE: The Claimant appealed the IDES decision to Cook County Circuit Court. The Circuit Court Judge found that the IDES had been wrong in denying unemployment benefits and ruled that the Claimant "could not have known that her requests for special treatment for a passenger were forbidden."

RULING OF THE APPELLATE COURT: The IDES then appealed the Circuit Court decision to the Illinois First District Appellate Court. The Appellate Court reversed the lower court's decision, and agreed with the IDES and American Airlines that the Claimant's conduct was misconduct under the Illinois Unemployment Insurance Act.

REASONING OF THE ILLINOIS SUPREME COURT: The Claimant then appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.

The Illinois Supreme Court was unanimous in supporting the legal position of the Claimant. The Illinois Supreme Court reasoned that American Airlines couldn't fire a worker and seek to deny the worker's unemployment insurance benefits unless the worker had broken specific and clearly written rules defining specific instances of employee misconduct.

The Illinois Supreme Court found that the Claimant did nothing illegal or obviously wrong because American Airlines did not have clear, written policies governing how to give passengers upgrades.

The justices ruled that "In the absence of a company rule prohibiting her conduct, the Claimant could not reasonably have predicted that she would be fired as a result."

Therefore, American Airlines ultimately lost its legal battle in trying to prove that the Claimant was fired for misconduct as defined by the Illinois Unemployment Insurance Act.

PRACTICE TIP: When an employer fires an employee and hopes to win in a misconduct battle before the IDES, the employer has a far greater chance of winning if the employer has a clear and detailed written rule or policy providing guidance to the employee about what is acceptable conduct in the workplace. When a Claimant deliberately and willfully violates a reasonable and known policy, the employer's chances of winning go up dramatically.

For assistance with protesting claims for unemployment insurance, contact Attorney Nancy E. Joerg who can be reached at Wessels Sherman's St. Charles, Illinois office: 630-377-1554 or email her at najoerg@wesselssherman.com. It is always good to confer with an attorney before a termination so that we can increase the employer's chances of winning before the IDES.

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