Despite Operton and Easterling, no change with substantial fault at DWD

The Easterling and especially Operton decisions should indicate that inadvertent — i.e., careless or unintentional mistakes — on the job should not disqualify someone from unemployment benefits.

The Department, however, is not happy with these outcomes. At the Advisory Council’s 16 March 2017 meeting, the following public comments were made about Easterling:

Ms. Knutson stated the decision in this case will provide general guidance to adjudicators and ALJs; however, cases are very fact-intensive to determine if it is truly an inadvertent error or substantial fault. Mr. Manley stated there should be a way to sharpen the definition of substantial fault to leave less gray area for interpretation and would not allow exceptions that disregard the entire rule. An employee that signed an employer policy of expectations that were not followed should not be able to claim that those policies were not followed because of a mistake to claim benefits. Mr. Manley expressed concern that the decision by the Court of Appeals is not within the spirit of what the Legislature intended to be as the definition of substantial fault. If decisions are based on this conclusion because the statute is not worded as clearly as it should be, it should be revisited.

Meeting Materials at 12.

NOTE: Both the Department and the Advisory Council have apparently forgotten that the council rejected substantial fault. Mr. Manley’s comments, moreover, ignore the basic requirements in unemployment law that employees NOT be disqualified for their unintentional, performance-related mistakes.

Inside the Department, however, the comments have not been so sanguine. In mid-May after Operton was decided, a Department insider explained to me:

The Operton decision went to the adjudication staff soon after it was issued. At a staff meeting a few days later, a supervisor said that there would be no new training on substantial fault despite the decision.

This lack of re-training in light of Operton is important. After Easterling, Ms. Knutsen simply noted that substantial fault involved a fact-intensive inquiry but provided NO explanation about what the Department would do to implement and follow Easterling. Now, a Department supervisor is indicating that there would be NO new training in how to follow the Wisconsin Supreme Court precedent in Operton. In other words, the Department is continuing to apply its pre-Operton and pre-Easterling standards for substantial fault.

A recent clinic case confirms this observation. In this case, the Department denied unemployment benefits to a teller discharged for cash-handling errors. The initial determination stated:

The employee was discharged because her performance did not meet the employer’s expectations. Her final incident was within her control; her actions do not rise to the level of misconduct. It was within the employee’s control to meet the reasonable requirements; therefore, her discharge is considered to be for substantial fault on the part of the employee.

Here, the Department is still applying its pre-Operton and pre-Easterling analysis of determining whether the employee was in control of the action in question. Under this framework, inadvertent errors only occur when employees lack control over their actions. The unintentional or accidental nature of the errors does not matter at all under this analysis.

NOTE: At the 17 November 2016 Advisory Council meeting, the Department presented a memorandum describing some misconduct and substantial fault decisions. The decisions covered in the substantial fault section of the memorandum describe only a few Commission decisions over whether the employee’s actions were major or minor infractions of company rules or involved absenteeism issues. There is no discussion of what constitutes reasonable employer expectations, what actions are reasonably in an employee’s control, what actions are inadvertent errors, and what actions are the result of an employee’s lack of skill, ability, or equipment.

Marilyn Townsend, Operton’s legal representative, took the teller’s case on and over-turned the initial denial of unemployment benefits at the hearing stage. The decision of the appeal tribunal, however, did not apply Operton despite the obvious similarities. At the hearing, there was no indication whatsoever that the teller’s errors were anything other than unintentional and accidental. Yet, the administrative law judge found that the teller essentially lacked the skills to do the work assigned her after a promotion (another exception to substantial fault) and then committed no errors after being demoted which would justify the discharge.

the record reveals that the employee requested additional training and support for her work performance issues. She did not receive the additional training and support which leads to the conclusion that she lacked the skill and ability to perform the job. The employee also struggled to perform the Phase II role and was demoted back to a Phase I role. While working in a Phase I role, the record demonstrated that the employee didn’t have any work performance matters. If she did have infractions in her Phase I role, those matters were not raised on the record by the employer.

So, there are decisions from the Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court that explain that, pursuant to the statutory language for substantial fault, accidental or unintentional mistakes on the job are inadvertent errors and do not qualify as substantial fault. As of June 2017, however, the Department is ignoring these court decisions when applying what it believes substantial fault should or should not include.

What should claimants do? Appeal. As the Department and the Department’s administrative law judges are NOT following court precedent, claimants have to appeal initial determinations denying them unemployment benefits to appeal tribunals and then the Commission. The Commission will follow court precedent about inadvertent errors and reverse disqualifications based on accidental and unintentional errors on the job.

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