Pennsylvania Court Jump Starts Unemployment Claim

by Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C.

On August 29, 2013, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania—an intermediate appellate court—affirmed an Unemployment Compensation Board of Review (UCBR) decision that an employee was entitled to unemployment compensation (UC) benefits. According to the court, because the employee, who was earning $9.00 an hour, could not afford a car repair or to buy another vehicle, the employee had shown “good cause” for having violated the employer’s rule requiring employees to have reliable transportation. Bell Socialization Services v. UCBR, Pa. Commw. Ct., No. 414 C.D. 2013 (August 29, 2013).

Shamela D. Hightower worked as a full-time residential service provider for Bell Socialization Services, Inc., earning an hourly wage of $9.00, from June 2011 until her discharge on July 16, 2012. As a residential service provider, Hightower was required by Bell to have “reliable transportation” in order to transport clients to doctors’ appointments and other events. Hightower had a vehicle at the time she was hired by Bell, but it failed mechanically at some point after she began her job there. She then drove her mother’s car until that vehicle was rendered inoperable due to an accident that occurred in January of 2012. On May 15, 2012, Bell directed Hightower to obtain reliable transportation by July 15, 2012. Hightower was unable to fix her car or finance another by that deadline, and her employment was terminated on July 16.

Hightower’s application for UC benefits was granted by the local service center, and Bell appealed. A hearing was held in November 2012, after which the referee affirmed the service center’s decision. Bell then appealed to the Pennsylvania UCBR. The UCBR affirmed the referee’s decision, and Bell petitioned the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court for review. That court affirmed the UCBR’s decision.

In Pennsylvania, as in many states, an individual is not entitled to unemployment compensation benefits if an employer can show that the claimant’s job loss was based upon “willful misconduct.” When an employer bases its claim of willful misconduct on the violation of a work rule, the employer must show that a “reasonable” rule existed of which the claimant was aware and that the claimant violated that rule. Once the employer has done this, the burden shifts to the employee to prove good cause for his or her actions. In order to establish “good cause,” an employee must show that his or her actions were justified or reasonable under the circumstances.

Hightower understood Bell’s work rule requiring her to have a reliable vehicle; she, in fact, complied with that rule, replacing her own non-functioning vehicle with one borrowed from her mother. However, once her mother’s car was rendered inoperable, Hightower was unable to afford to fix either car or buy another vehicle. Pennsylvania courts have determined that the inability or incapacity to meet an employer’s standards is not willful misconduct. Based upon that determination, the Commonwealth Court agreed with the UCBR’s decision that Hightower’s failure to procure a vehicle was justifiable and was good cause for her actions.

While this decision was made by a Pennsylvania court, and is based on Pennsylvania law, all employers should take note of it. Of particular interest is the third footnote #3, in which the Court court states that it is “guided by the remedial, humanitarian objectives” of the UC law. Before determining to litigate a UC case to a state’s appellate courts, employers may want to consider whether an alternative solution exists. In this case, the employer actually argued that Hightower “should have attempted to transfer to another job with [Bell] that did not require a vehicle.” If transferring to another position was a valid option, it may have benefitted the employer to have raised that issue at an earlier stage of the appellate process, which would have avoided this adverse outcome for the company.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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