In Mississippi, a person’s receipt of unemployment compensation is based on the reason(s) that their prior employment ended. Typically, the Mississippi Department of Employment Security will deny unemployment compensation when the person was terminated for cause, such as insubordination. The Mississippi Court of Appeals’ recent decision in Gammage v. Mississippi Department of Employment Security, No. 2012-CC-00523-COA (Miss. Ct. App. May 28, 2013) illustrates that not all insubordinate behavior by employees will result in the denial of unemployment compensation benefits under Mississippi law.
In Gammage, an employee assigned to the laundry of a hospital complained to her supervisor that a co-employee “had written a negative letter about her.” The supervisor requested that the complaining employee come to the hospital to discuss the matter. The employee, who was at home on her day off, said that "she did not want to come to the hospital, because she had just washed her hair, and it was cold outside.” A follow-up telephone conversation with the complaining employee, in which she was again urged to come to the hospital to discuss the matter, resulted in several heated exchanges and, ultimately, the termination of the complaining employee.
The Court of Appeals held that the employee was not guilty of misconduct serious enough to deny unemployment benefits because the employer had not met its burden of proving “by substantial, clear and convincing evidence that the discharged employee’s actions amounted to disqualifying misconduct.” Two reasons were given for that decision.
First, the Court of Appeals noted that the hospital’s employee handbook classified insubordination as a violation of policy requiring two incidents of insubordination before the employee would be dismissed. Second, the Court of Appeals held that the employee’s “alleged behavior at most amounted to a single incident of disrespect.”
No doubt, the employer in Gammage would have been better off if management had reviewed the policies set forth in the employee handbook before firing the employee. More perplexing, however, was the Court of Appeals’ willingness to condone a mere “single incident of disrespect.”
Mississippi employers should be aware of this Mulligan effect on insubordination cases and take care when disciplining for such behavior.