Whether a fired employee is eligible for unemployment in California depends on whether the employee’s conduct constituted “misconduct” within the meaning of Section 1256 of the California Unemployment Insurance Code. If the wrongful conduct rose to the level of “misconduct,” then the employer may be successful in challenging the employee’s right to unemployment benefits. But what, exactly, does “misconduct” mean? When does an employee’s conduct rise to that level?
Today, the California Court of Appeal provided some clarity on these questions. In Robles v. Employment Dev. Dept., the employee was terminate for attempting to give one of his employee benefits – an allowance for safety shoes – to a friend. The store clerk would not let the employee buy the shoes for his friend, and the store clerk informed his employer. In discussions with the employer, the employee claimed that he did not fully understand the safety shoe allowance policy. The employee claimed that he had two pairs of safety shoes already, and thus he saw no problem with giving his allowance to a friend in need. Nevertheless, the employee apologized for misunderstanding the policy and promised never to do it again. The company fired the employee anyway, and the employee sought unemployment benefits.
The Court ruled that, to rise to the level of “misconduct” under Section 1256, the conduct that prompted the termination must show willful, intentional, and harmful to the employer’s interests. Mere inefficiency, unsatisfactory conduct due to inability or incapacity, or good faith errors in judgment are not enough. Instead, the Court held that “misconduct” was “restricted” to “deliberate violations or disregard of standards of behavior…, or in carelessness or negligence of such degree or recurrence as to manifest equal culpability, wrongful intent or evil design, or to show an intentional and substantial disregard of the employer‘s interests or of the employee‘s duties and obligations to his employer.” The key test, according to the Robles Court, is whether the employee’s conduct demonstrates fault or bad faith.
In the Robles case, the Court held that the employee was entitled to unemployment benefits because his wrongful actions did not meet the “misconduct” test because the employee did not have “culpable intent.” The Court noted that the employee admitted to being unclear about the policy and then immediately apologized once it was explained to him. The Court’s conclusion was that, “at most, Robles was guilty of a good-faith error in judgment.”
This case reminds us all – most terminations in California will not result in the denial of a later claim for unemployment by the terminated employee. The “misconduct” standard is just too high for most employers to meet.
The Court’s opinion is available here.