How To Handle Unemployment Insurance Claims By Employees Who Were Fired For Misconduct?

Unemployment benefits claims are ubiquitous in the employment landscape. “The fundamental purpose of California’s Unemployment Insurance Code is to reduce the hardship of unemployment by providing benefits for persons unemployed through no fault of their own.”[1] However, what can an employer do to challenge an unemployment claim by a claimant who was terminated for misconduct?[2] An employer’s most effective tool to [challenge] such a claim is a well-documented progressive discipline protocol.

For a claimant to become ineligible to receive unemployment insurance benefits he or she must have been terminated for engaging in misconduct.[3]  In this context, “misconduct” is a term of art that comprises four elements: (1) claimant owes a duty to the employer; (2) claimant breached that duty; (3) the breach is a willful or wanton disregard of that duty; (4) the breach disregards the employer’s interests and injures or tends to injure such interests.[4]  The employer has the burden of showing that the claimant engaged in misconduct.[5]

In plain English, this means that an employer has to show that the claimant intentionally engaged in conduct they knew was against the law or company rules, policies, directives, or instructions.  Unpacking this further, an employer must show that the claimant knew about the particular rule and that the claimant acted with the intention to break such rule.  Accordingly, a claimant does not engage in misconduct if they break a rule that they did not know, or if they break a rule they know, but do so inadvertently.[6]

Due to the elements of knowledge and intent, an employer can face difficulty in establishing that a claimant engaged in misconduct.  Having a system of warnings and write-ups is an effective way to show that a claimant engaged in misconduct and, therefore, should not be allowed to collect unemployment benefits.  Ideally, write-ups should identify the rule or policy that the claimant has violated, the conduct that resulted in the violation, and include a brief explanation that it was explained to the claimant why his/her conduct violated the particular rule or policy.  Anything short of this, the employer will find it considerably difficult, if not outright impossible, to establish that a claimant engaged in misconduct.

As always, this is not legal advice and you should consult with experienced employment counsel.  If you have any questions or need assistance with unemployment claims, please feel free to contact us.

Rodrigo J. Torres, Esq
Landegger Baron Law Group, ALC

[1] Irving v. California Unemployment Ins. Appeals Bd. (2014) 229 Cal.App.4th 946, 959, citations and internal quotation marks omitted.
[2] Although, there are other reasons why a claimant may be ineligible to receive unemployment insurance benefits, this note focuses only on misconduct.
[3] Unemp. Ins. Code, § 1256.
[4] Cal. Code Regs., tit. 22, § 1256-30.
[5] Maywood Glass Co. v. Stewart (1959) 170 Cal.App.2d 719, 725.
[6] No misconduct will be found when a claimant breaks a known rule intentionally, but the employer has a history of not enforcing the rule.  Also, there is no misconduct for mere carelessness, or when a claimant fails to meet work goals despite trying.