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No unemployment benefits for refusal to sign disciplinary memo

Paratransit, Inc. v. Unemployment Ins. Appeals Bd. (2012) 206 Cal.App.4th 1319, 142 Cal.Rptr.3d 351

Background: Claimant, Craig Medeiros was employed by a private, nonprofit corporation engaged in the business of providing transportation services for the elderly and disabled. Prior to termination, Claimant worked as a driver for approximately six years. Claimant was the member of union that included the following provision in its collective bargaining agreement (CBA): “The Employer shall provide a Vehicle Operator with copies of complimentary letters received regarding his or her job performance and with copies of disciplinary notices, including verbal warnings that have been put in writing. All disciplinary notices must be signed by a Vehicle Operator when presented to him or her provided that the notice states that by signing, the Vehicle Operator is only acknowledging receipt of said notice and is not admitting to any fault or to the truth of any statement in the notice.”  At some point of time, a passenger lodged a complaint against Claimant with Employer. Employer’s human resources manager investigated the matter and concluded the alleged misconduct had occurred. Subsequently, the employer required the claimant to sign the disciplinary memorandum. However, the claimant refused to sign the disciplinary memorandum complaining that, if he signed the document, he would be admitting the truth of what was stated in it. Despite assurance from employer’ representative that his (claimant’s) signature would only signify receipt of the document, claimant refused to sign. Following claimant’s refusal, he was terminated.

Claimant applied for unemployment insurance benefits, but the Employment Development Department (EDD) denied his request. Claimant appealed, but an administrative law judge (ALJ) upheld EDD’s decision. ADJ concluded Claimant’s “deliberate disobedience of a reasonable and lawful directive of the employer, to sign the memorandum notifying him of disciplinary action, where obedience was not impossible or unlawful and did not impose new or additional burdens upon [him], constituted misconduct….” Claimant appealed to the Board, and the Board reversed. Following the Board’s decision, employer filed a petition for writ of administrative mandamus.

Court History: The trial court granted the employer’s petition, concluding Claimant deliberately disobeyed a lawful and reasonable directive of his employer and this amounted to misconduct rather than a good faith error in judgment. Claimant appealed.

Pertinent Issues addressed: The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment and held as follows:

  • Claimant’s failure to sign disciplinary memorandum violated his statutory obligation to employer under Labor Code section 2856. Labor Code section 2856 states: “An employee shall substantially comply with all the directions of his employer concerning the service on which he is engaged, except where such obedience is impossible or unlawful, or would impose new and unreasonable burdens upon the employee.” Claimant’s refusal to sign the memo, despite assurance of his signature’s only being an acknowledgment receipt was a failure to comply with the direction of his employer. Claimant’s refusal to sign the disciplinary memorandum was misconduct rather than a good faith error in judgment.
  • Citing, Amador v. Unemployment Ins. Appeals Bd. (1984) 35 Cal.3d 671, 200 Cal.Rptr. 298, the Court of Appeal noted that, “Misconduct within the meaning of section 1256 is “limited to ‘ “conduct evincing such willful or wanton disregard of an employer’s interests as is found in deliberate violations or disregard of standards of behavior which the employer has the right to expect of his employee, or in carelessness or negligence of such degree or recurrence as to manifest equal culpability, wrongful intent or evil design, or to show an intentional and substantial disregard of the employer’s interests or the employee’s duties and obligations to his employer. On the other hand mere inefficiency, unsatisfactory conduct, failure in good performance as the result of inability or incapacity, inadvertencies or ordinary negligence in isolated instances, or good faith errors in judgment or discretion are not to be deemed ‘misconduct’ within the meaning of the statute.” (Paratransit, Inc. v. Unemployment Ins. Appeals Bd. (2012) 206 Cal.App.4th 1319, 142 Cal.Rptr.3d 351)

Labor Code section 1256 in relevant part provides: “An individual is disqualified for unemployment compensation benefits if … he or she has been discharged for misconduct connected with his or her most recent work.”

Pointers:

  • The case serves a warning to the employees that, unless an employer requires obedience of something impossible or unlawful, or something that would impose additional or unreasonable burdens upon the employee, he should follow the directions of his employer.
  • The case should not be used as a tool to terminate employees on the pretext of refusal to sign a disciplinary memo. Instead, the employees should be promptly informed about the consequences of signing or not signing the memo.