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What is Willful (Wilful) Misconduct Under Unemployment Compensation Act? Court Says Insulting E-mails to Boss May Qualify

Posted in Human Resources (HR) Compliance, Litigation, Wage & Hour

Employees who are terminated by their employers are typically eligible for unemployment compensation in Connecticut unless an exception applies.

"Wilful Misconduct" is one of the limited exceptions (in Conn. Gen. Stat. 31-236), but it is not an easy exception to reach. A new decision from the Connecticut Appellate Court (to be officially released on March 22nd) illustrates a case, however, where that standard was met and can provide some guidance to employers as to the types of cases that may qualify as "wilful misconduct".

(The statute uses "wilful" but the common usage today is "willful"; both are interchangeable.)

In Joseph v. Administrator, Unemployment Compensation Act (download here), the employee was discharge for alleged insubordination and for actions arising from two e-mails that he sent.  Specifically, the Plaintiff worked as a senior accountant for 18 months. When a new supervisor came on board, he accused the prior supervisor of fraud.  The new supervisor met with employee in a counseling session a month later, but the employee did not follow her instructions. 

After further counseling, he continued to persist in a manner that did not follow her instructions. Just a few days after that, he refused to attend a department meeting and sent the supervisor an e-mail stating that he thought the company was "trying to set him up". 

After some further counseling and a few weeks, the employee responded to the supervisor stating, ‘‘you do not have the technical accounting skills to be a supervisor and that will be your downfall.’’  The same day that further e-mails were exchanged, the employee was fired. 

At the unemployment compensation office, the appeals referee first found that such conduct was "wilful misconduct" noting that the standard is generally whether the conduct is "spontaneous
or deliberate".  Here, the referee concluded that the e-mail remarks "were offensive. He did not send them during a heated discussion, and no mitigating circumstances excused his conduct. He merely did not want to follow [the supervisor]’s directions. The [plaintiff] directed these e-mails to [her] to personally insult her and undermine her supervisory authority.

The board affirmed the decision adding ‘‘[i]n the case before us, the employer discharged the [plaintiff] immediately after he sent his supervisor two highly insulting and demeaning e-mail messages questioning her accounting and supervisory abilities. . . . [W]e find that the [plaintiff’s] refusal to follow the company’s format and his attempt to undermine his supervisor’s authority by challenging her ability to supervise constituted wilful misconduct.’’  The employee then went to the Connecticut Superior Court, which dismissed the appeal.

On appeal to the Connecticut Appellate Court, the court issued a "per curiam" decision on willful misconduct noting that its review was limited to whether the decision was an abuse of discretion. Here, the court said it was not:

The employer’s] decision to terminate the plaintiff’s employment was precipitated
by the plaintiff’s sending disparaging e-mails to [his supervisor]. The appeals referee concluded, and the board agreed, that the e-mails that the plaintiff sent to [the supervisor] insulted her personally and undermined her supervisory authority, and, therefore, his actions rose to the level of wilful misconduct in the course of employment. There is sufficient evidence in the record to support this finding.

What’s the Takeaway for Employers?

Insubordination is still a very legitimate ground for termination and insulting e-mails to a supervisor is as well. Putting the two together in this instance was enough for the court to say that it rose to the level of willful misconduct. If employers have the same circumstance, don’t assuming that objecting to unemployment compensation is a lost cause. Under the right circumstances, courts will support the employer’s decision.