A Bad Smoke Break

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A recent Missouri case demonstrates the importance of documentation when defending against unwarranted unemployment claims. The case also underlines the need for the reforms passed by the Missouri General Assembly and pending signature by Gov. Jay Nixon.

Facts
James Sullivan worked as a part-time cook for nearly a year and a half at Landry’s Seafood House. One day, he disappeared during dinner service and was found 20 minutes later smoking and talking on his cell phone in the parking lot. He was fired and filed a claim for unemployment benefits. In Missouri, when employees are terminated for work-related misconduct, they can be disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits. However, a deputy at the Missouri Division of Employment Security initially determined that Sullivan was eligible for benefits. The restaurant appealed that determination to the Division Appeals Tribunal.

Appeals Tribunal Finds Willful Misconduct
During the hearing, which Sullivan failed to attend, Landry’s Seafood House offered the testimony of a senior kitchen manager. The manager said the restaurant had policies prohibiting employees from smoking at work or leaving their work area without a supervisor’s permission. Landry's posted signs on its doors to remind employees of the rule and had discussed the policy with employees at shift meetings. Further, Landry's provided employees with a copy of its policies. Sullivan had signed an acknowledgment of receipt when hired. Sullivan had been counseled for violating the rules in the past and had complied with the policies on several occasions by asking for permission to leave his workstation and clocking out before going outside to smoke a cigarette.

After the hearing, the Appeals Tribunal reversed the determination and found in favor of Landry's. Sullivan was to be disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits because he was discharged for work-related misconduct. Sullivan appealed.

Court of Appeals Sides with the Employer
The Missouri Court of Appeals upheld the decision in Landry’s favor, finding there was substantial evidence to support it. The court noted that Sullivan was aware of the rules, had signed a written statement acknowledging receipt of the policies, and had been counseled on the rules. The supervisor’s testimony at the hearing established these facts and constituted substantial evidence that Landry’s terminated Sullivan for work-related misconduct. The court explained that Landry’s rule on breaks was also reasonable because a restaurant’s business depends on employees preparing food for its customers in a timely manner. Landry’s rule against smoking on the clock was reasonable because an employer has a right to expect employees to be engaged in meaningful work while being paid.

Bottom Line
At the time of this case, Missouri law defined misconduct as a “wanton and willful” act in order to disqualify a terminated employee from receiving unemployment benefits in Missouri. But as the first decision made by the deputy at the Missouri Division of Employment Security shows, that definition can lead to inconsistent rulings. Although the Missouri Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the employer, it was a time-consuming and expensive undertaking to work through the appeals process to secure a decision that would seem obvious to most people.

During the 2013 Legislative Session, the Missouri Chamber championed legislation to change the definition of misconduct to provide more consistency in unemployment compensation cases. Sponsored by Rep. Will Kraus, a Republican from Lee’s Summit, SB 28 is currently pending signature by Gov. Jay Nixon. House Bill 611 contains similar language and also awaits signature. Proof that you properly communicated your work rules to employees and required them to acknowledge receipt of the rules is key when seeking to establish that an employee’s violation of the rules was intentional. Landry’s actions in this case protected the restaurant from having to pay unemployment benefits to a former employee who violated its well-publicized policies.