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Employee Fired for Rude and Aggressive Behavior Deemed Ineligible for Unemployment Compensation Benefits

Generally, I don’t write much about unemployment compensation decisions.  They don’t impact a business the way a lawsuit can, and employers just don’t seem to find them very interesting.  I suspect some of the disinterest stems from unfavorable outcomes employers come to expect when a terminated employee’s application for unemployment compensation benefits is challenged based on “misconduct.”  Employers cannot be blamed for concluding that contesting a terminated employee’s eligibility for UC benefits – regardless of why they were discharged – is a waste of time. The deck seems stacked against employers and in favor of fired employees. But once in a while the facts are sufficient that even the unemployment compensation folks won’t find a discharged employee eligible to receive benefits.  Such was the outcome of a recent appellate court case that upheld an agency decision to disqualify an employee from receiving unemployment compensation benefits due to his bad attitude. The facts of the case demonstrate where an employee’s behavior can amount to disqualifying “misconduct.” The facts also show how an applicant’s behavior in an unemployment compensation hearing might help make the employer’s case.

The employee in this case worked as a pharmacy technician at a Cub Foods Store. He apparently made a name for himself by behaving rudely toward customers and coworkers alike. When managers attempted to meet with this fellow after he was accused of yelling at a nurse and being impolite to a child, they claimed he became agitated and started yelling that HE was the one “being bullied” by his managers. When a coworker suggested that his behavior was disrespectful toward the managers, the suggestion apparently was not well received. He began yelling and pointing his finger at the coworker to the point that she locked herself in a room out of fear for her safety.  Even when the  store manager tried speaking with this individual the next day by phone, he denied any wrongdoing and resumed yelling at the manager. This was the proverbial last straw that reportedly led to his termination for aggressive, threatening, insubordinate, and unprofessional behavior.  

When this “gentleman” applied for unemployment compensation benefits Cub contested it, asserting that his conduct was bad enough to meet the definition of “misconduct,” disqualifying him from receiving benefits. Unfortunately – as many employers can relate – the Minnesota Dept. of Employment and Economic Development (DEED, for short) determined initially that he was eligible to receive benefits. The employer, however, stuck to its guns and appealed the ruling to a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. The ALJ reversed the initial determination, finding the employee was guilty of disqualifying “misconduct” due to his rude and aggressive behavior. A bit of humor in this decision (to me at least) is that in addition to testimony from the employer’s witnesses the ALJ based this finding, in part, on the employee’s own RUDE AND AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIOR EXHIBITED AT THE HEARING, in front of and toward the Judge!!!  It seems some people just cannot help themselves, which ends up making them their own worst enemy.

So, what sort of lessons might employers glean from this case (which, by the way was upheld on appeal as a win for the employer)?  First, sometimes an employee’s surly attitude can actually meet the seemingly insurmountable definition of disqualifying “misconduct” to deny their eligibility for UC benefits. The standard is generally the same in every state, so this case has relevance outside of Minnesota. Second, while employers understandably do not care to challenge unemployment compensation claims in every instance, some cases may be worth fighting…and winning. Third, initial eligibility determinations should not always discourage you – they do get reversed, both for and against applicants. Fourth, if you do determine to challenge a terminated employee’s claim, be prepared to present evidence of the employee’s misconduct through first-hand witnesses and, where applicable, relevant documentation. Finally, if you are lucky enough to have an employee fired for bad behavior display that same behavior to a judge, enjoy the show! 

Questions? Contact attorney Jim Sherman by email or at 952-746-1700.

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