Should An Employee Be Eligible for Unemployment Benefits When She Quits for Being Scolded?

I know this story will tug on your heart strings.  It involves a lawyer who was publicly reprimanded for doing something that irritated the managing partner.  The lawyer, Ann Dooley, described the drubbing as humiliating.  In fact, she was so distraught that she quit and filed for unemployment benefits.  She claimed that the incident was so harrowing she was compelled to quit, and therefore she should be entitled to benefits.   

A New Jersey appellate court ruled that Ms. Dooley was not eligible for unemployment benefits. It wrote "on-the-job reprimands administered to [an employee] by her supervisor, while public and arguably improper and humiliating, are not so burdensome as to justify [the employee's] departure from the job."  Would this be the same decision in California?  Perhaps. 

In a 1978 decision, the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board wrote "dissatisfaction with a supervisor or co-worker is generally not good cause for quitting a job.  However, physical or verbal abuse by a supervisor does constitute good cause.  So too will conditions of work that are so onerous as to jeopardize a worker's physical or mental well-being."  (Appeals Board Decision No. P-B-382.) 

This standard gives both sides plenty of room to argue!  How public or humiliating must a workplace incident be to rise to the level of "abuse"?  Will unemployment insurance law adopt the definition of "abusive conduct" found in the new Government Code section 12950.1.  That law defines abusive conduct as "conduct of an employer or employee in the workplace, with malice, that a reasonable person would find hostile, offensive, and unrelated to an employer’s legitimate business interests.  Abusive conduct may include repeated infliction of verbal abuse, such as the use of derogatory remarks, insults, and epithets, verbal or physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating, or humiliating, or the gratuitous sabotage or undermining of a person’s work performance.  A single act shall not constitute abusive conduct, unless especially severe and egregious."  Of course, this standard also raises more questions than answers. 

So what should you do if an employee quits, citing some type of "hostile" incident?  I suggest you seriously evaluate the economics of the case.  Consider Ms. Dooley's case.  Like you I am wondering why this case made it all the way to a state appellate court.  Certainly, the complaining employee could have found a job well before the case made the long, time-consuming journey to an appellate decision, and then to the New Jersey Supreme Court where the court refused to review the case.  And the law firm would have spent much less just allowing the lawyer to receive benefits.  This is a good example of how hell hath no fury like a disgruntled worker. 

Is it worth your time, money and emotional energy to fight unemployment claims?  In my opinion, the economics of the case should be your primary factor in determining whether or not to fight the claim.  But if you really want to fight the claim, give me a call.  We'll fight it, and bill you for it.  After a few bills you may reconsider the economics of the case.