Non-acquiescence: Employer aiding and abetting

Besides the personal liability non-acquiescence tax cases discussed in a previous post, the Department also declared on 21 December 2017 that it was “non-acquiescing” to a Labor and Industry Review Commission decision holding that an employer did not aid and abet claimant concealment: In the Matter of National Security and Investigations LLC, UI Hearing No. S1500384AP (6 Dec. 2017) (non-acquiescence 21 Dec. 2017).

NOTE: During the last few years, the Department has been eager to find an aiding and abetting case against an employer. SeeConcealment problems for employers too” (15 April 2015) (no aiding and abetting found, in part, because employer unaware of unemployment claims at issue) and Gussert v. Springhetti Landscaping and DWD, UI Hearing Nos. 16400598AP-16400609AP (27 January 2017) (no claimant concealment found in case where Department was alleging aiding and abetting by employer). This case represents the third unsuccessful attempt by the Department at such a case.

In this case, the small employer could not pay the employee anymore because of a shortage of revenue and a lack of timely payment of bills from clients. Given the slow business, the employer told the employee to file a claim for unemployment benefits, and the employee did so.

In those claims, the employee did not report any work for the employer since he was not getting paid for his work. During these weeks, the employer provided alternative compensation to the employee: a canoe, a car for a spouse, cash, use of a debit card, and use of a company vehicle.

The employee eventually quit because of a lack of work. He then filed a wage complaint for unpaid wages against the employer, and a settlement was eventually worked out. After the settlement and resolution of the wage case, the employer informed the Department of unreported wages during the weeks the employee had filed claims for unemployment benefits.

The Department charged the employee with concealment, and no appeal of that charge was filed. The Department also charged the employer with aiding and abetting claimant concealment because the employer told the employee to file a claim for unemployment benefits as work was slow and revenue was behind.

NOTE: That aiding and abetting charge was for $9320 (for what appears to be 25 weeks of benefits at $373 per week) plus another $12500 in additional penalties ($500 for each week of the alleged 25 weeks of concealment) for a total liability to the employer of $21,820.

This accusation was not enough to demonstrate aiding and abetting for the Commission, however. The Commission explained (footnote omitted):

The record shows that the department’s initial finding of aiding and abetting was based on the adjudicator’s impression that the employer instructed [the claimant] not to report hours and wages to the department when filing for unemployment benefits. The employer clearly told [the claimant] to file for benefits while work was slow, but there is no objective evidence in the record that an agreement existed between the employer and [the claimant] to conceal work and wages from the department.

The distinction noted by the Commission here is vitally important. Claimants are entitled to benefits when available work has declined, and so there is nothing wrong with a claimant filing for partial unemployment benefits because of a decline in available work. Indeed, the formula for partial unemployment benefits encourages claims for unemployment benefits by making employees eligible for those benefits even when working numerous hours and receiving substantial pay in a given week.

This basic eligibility criteria certainly casts some shade on what the Department is alleging in this case. Because the Department in this case is essentially claiming that an employer encouraging an employee to file for unemployment benefits because of a lack of available work constitutes aiding and abetting, the Department is turning a basic eligibility issue into a point of liability for both employer and employee whenever there is cooperation between the two.

There is an additional problem with this case for employers: the employer, angry at having to settle a wage case, tried to turn the tables on its former employee by informing the Department about the former employee’s prior unemployment claims. Because the employer and employee were at one time friendly with each other, however, the Department turned their initial lack of hostility into a kind of conspiracy charge about unemployment benefits being paid in lieu of regular wages.

Luckily for the employer, the Commission saw through the dubious nature of this claim (footnote omitted):

Under the facts in this case, the commission finds that the most reasonable inference to draw is that [the claimant] intentionally withheld his time sheets in January, February, March, and April 2014 because it was to his advantage to do so. It was [the claimant’s] understanding, or justification, that he could claim unemployment benefits because he was not getting a paycheck. The unemployment benefits [the claimant] received provided him with money “to live on” and satisfied, at least in part, his child support obligation. Later, after he quit his employment with the employer, [the claimant] attempted to get paid for the hours listed on his time sheets, which had not been previously submitted, by filing a complaint with the state.

The employer unquestionably could have been more diligent in analyzing its unemployment insurance reserve fund balance statements, but the fact that the employer failed to do so does not prove that the employer willingly assisted [the claimant in concealing work and wage information from the department. The employer did not know how partial benefits are calculated and believed that any weekly amount less than $360 was a partial benefit. [The claimant’s] co-worker claimed unemployment benefits during the first four months of 2014, and he reported working for and earning wages from the employer. There is no sound reason why the employer would aid and abet [the claimant] in concealing work and wages from the department while, at the same time, allowing [the claimant’s] co-worker to report work and wage information to the department.

But, any employer should take away from this case the fact that the Department is refusing to accept it as precedent. The Department believes that cooperation between employer and employee about eligibility for unemployment benefits could easily be the basis for an aiding and abetting charge against the employer. As the employer was originally charged with over $21,000 in liability for that alleged aiding and abetting, the danger being created by the Department here is much more than a speculative problem for small employers.

The Department essentially wants to punish employers who think their employees should be eligible for unemployment benefits. Should employers change their mind about that “cooperation,” they face a very real risk of being targeted by the Department.

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