by Sayema Hameed
In California, a terminated employee will be disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits if the employee is found to have engaged in “misconduct” connected with his or her most recent work. (Cal. Unemp. Ins. Code Section 1256.)
In a new case, Robles v. Employment Development Department (First District, Div. Four, Case No. A132773; filed 7/16/12), the Court of Appeal analyzed whether a terminated employee committed job-related misconduct when he attempted to use his safety shoe allowance (provided by the employer) to purchase shoes for his friend. The answer: No, he did not engage in job-related misconduct and, therefore, he is not disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits.
The employee, Jose Robles, worked as a service technician for Liquid Environmental Solutions for four years until his termination on January 5, 2010. His job was to collect food grease from restaurants and other food outlets.
Robles was terminated due to an incident in which he attempted to buy shoes for his friend at the Red Wing Shoe Store using his employer’s $150 safety shoe allowance. Robles asked the store clerk if she would measure his friend’s foot because he intended to give the shoes to his friend who needed the shoes more than he did. Robles knew the shoe allowance was for him, but he believed he could afford to give the shoes to his friend because he had a good pair of shoes already and the employer would not be jeopardized.
His stated intent was to perform a noble gesture for a friend. The store clerk told him that he could not use the shoe allowance for his friend. Robles did not attempt to hide his attempt to use the shoe allowance for his friend, and he promptly apologized to his supervisor and promised not to do it again.
Nevertheless, Robles’ employer terminated his employment without prior warning. Robles then applied to the Employment Development Department (EDD) for unemployment benefits. The EDD investigator did not speak with the employer, but the EDD denied Robles’ application for unemployment benefits because he “broke a reasonable employer rule.”
Stating that his employer did not cite any specific rule that was broken and he was not aware of any such rule, Robles appealed the EDD ruling to the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board (“Board”). The administrative law judge also found that Robles committed job-related misconduct that disqualified him from receiving unemployment benefits.
Robles appealed again to a panel of the Board, which adopted the administrative law judge’s decision at its own. Then Robles petitioned for a writ of administrative mandate from the trial court. The trial court denied the petition, concluding that the administrative findings were supported by the weight of the evidence. Finally, Robles appealed the trial court’s judgment to the Court of Appeal.
The Court of Appeal found that Robles’ attempt to use his safety shoe allowance for his friend did not constitute job-related misconduct within the meaning of Unemployment Insurance Code section 1256, where the employee presented evidence that:
- He did not hide his intent but rather told the store clerk that he desired to purchase shoes for a friend who was in need;
- He already had adequate safety shoes and did not believe he was posing a safety risk or placing the employer in jeopardy;
- He apologized to the employer when he learned he had violated company policy and promised not to do so again in future; and
- He did not end up using the allowance for his friend.
At most, therefore, Robles was guilty of a good faith error in judgment, which is not sufficient to establish misconduct.
The Court also noted that the employer did not oppose the employee’s application for unemployment benefits and did not appear at any of the administrative hearings regarding his appeal. Unemployment Insurance Code Section 1256 establishes a rebuttable statutory presumption that, absent evidence from the employer, an individual is presumed to have been discharged for reasons other than misconduct in connection with his or her work.
Since the employer did not oppose benefits for Robles, did not speak with the EDD investigators, and did not present any evidence, the employer did not overcome the statutory presumption that Robles was discharged for reasons other than misconduct. Accordingly, Robles was not disqualified from receiving unemployment compensation benefits.
This opinion provides a helpful reminder of the eligibility standard for unemployment benefits set forth in Unemployment Insurance Code Section 1256 as well as an overview of the appeal process regarding applications for unemployment benefits. In summary, a good faith error in judgment does not amount to misconduct and does not disqualify an employee from receiving unemployment benefits.