Employee’s Violation of Company Policy Regarding Computer Use to Access Flight Information for Airline Passenger Not “Disqualifying Willful / Wanton Misconduct” Sufficient to Deny Unemployment Benefits
In a published opinion issued on July 15, 2014, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that a security guard’s access of a computer to provide an airline passenger information about a flight’s departure did not meet the legal standard for “misconduct” sufficient to deny unemployment benefits after termination from employment.
The employee was a privately contracted security guard working at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport. Her employer’s policy prohibited use of computers to access information about flights for passengers. The employee knew of this policy. She was approached by a passenger who asked for information about departure of a specific flight. The employee accessed the computer and provided the information to the passenger. She was terminated as a result of violating her employer’s policy regarding computer usage.
The employee filed a claim for unemployment benefits. Her employer claimed that under MCL 421.29(1)(b), she was disqualified from receiving benefits because she had been “discharged for misconduct connected with the individual’s work” within the meaning of that provision. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) agreed and ruled that the employee’s conduct met the statutory standard. The Michigan Compensation Appellate Commission affirmed the ALJ’s decision.
On appeal to the Circuit Court, the decision denying benefits was reversed.
The Circuit Court reasoned that the meaning of “misconduct” under MCL 421.29(1)(b) had been interpreted by the Michigan Supreme Court to require a showing of conduct exhibiting a willful and wanton disregard of an employer’s interests. The Circuit Court also noted the Supreme Court had defined what did not constitute misconduct, conduct which included “ordinary negligence” and “good faith errors in judgment or discretion”. The Circuit Court reasoned that the employee was attempting to help a passenger, and, by extension was doing something productive and beneficial for her employer. Thus, the Circuit Court reasoned, even though the employee violated her employer’s computer usage policy, it was a good faith mistake rather than willful or wanton misconduct contrary to her employer’s interest.
On appeal, the employer argued that the Circuit Court had made a factual determination, to wit, that the conclusion that the employee’s behavior did not constitute “misconduct” was either a factual conclusion that the ALJ’s decision was not “supported by the record evidence”, a phrase invoking the standard of review of administrative agency findings of fact, or, in the least, a mixed question of law and fact. Therefore, according to the employer, the Circuit Court’s review was limited to a determination that the ALJ’s decision was “not supported by competent, material, and substantial evidence” on the record. Mich. Const. 1963, art. 6, sec. 28.
The employee countered that the Circuit Court accepted the factual findings of the ALJ, but nonetheless made a ruling that the ALJ’s decision, and the Commission’s affirmance, was “contrary to law”, invoking the standard allowing the reviewing appellate court to determine a “question of law”.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the Circuit Court’s decision. The panel held that the facts on the administrative law record were undisputed and the reviewing court was therefore authorized to determine whether the decisions below were contrary to or authorized by law. In doing so, the Circuit Court properly looked to the statutory definition of “disqualifying misconduct”, and to the jurisprudence interpreting and applying that decision.
The Court of Appeals reasoned that the employee’s decision, while a violation of the employer’s policy, constituted a “good-faith error in judgment” and not “disqualifying misconduct” sufficient to deny benefits.
The Court also noted that even if the facts were disputed, the reviewing court had authority to accept the facts on the record and determine whether the administrative agency’s conclusion was legally valid. In such cases, once the reviewing court makes the determination that the agency’s decision was “legally valid”, it may then determine whether the agency’s findings of facts were supported by the record.
This published opinion offers a fairly thorough, yet succinct, discussion of the standards of review for a court reviewing an administrative agency decision. On a purely factual level, perhaps it would have behooved the employer to present additional evidence at the administrative level that its enforcement of the computer usage policy related in fact to airline security, and thus, was a determinant factor for satisfactory performance of its own contract with the airport authorities to provide security and refrain from allowing its employees to actually violate airline and airport security measures.
If such evidence was available and had been produced, it would have been more difficult for the Circuit Court to conclude that the employee was not acting against the interests of her employer.
The decision is attached here: Hodge v. U.S. Security Associates, Inc.COA.Published.opn
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