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Unemployment Benefits and Progressive Discipline

In a recent decision, the Minnesota Supreme Court clarified that a former employee can be denied eligibility for unemployment benefits if he engaged in "employment misconduct," even where the employer terminated the former employee in violation of its own progressive discipline policy.

"Employment misconduct" for purposes of eligibility for unemployment benefits is defined by statute, but can generally be described as a serious violation of the standards of behavior an employer has a right to expect.

In this case, the former employee was terminated for excessive absenteeism and tardiness. The employer had a progressive discipline policy, which was contained in the employee handbook. The employer had been following the progressive discipline policy in dealing with employee's past absenteeism and tardiness. As a result, the former employee had received past oral warnings and a two-day suspension.

However, eventually the employer apparently lost patience with the employee, and terminated him, rather than issuing a ten-day suspension (which would have been the next level of discipline, and which was the last level before termination). The employee subsequently filed for unemployment benefits, and was denied.

On appeal, the Minnesota Supreme Court held that, at least on the question of eligibility for unemployment benefits, an employer's failure to follow its progressive discipline policy had no effect on whether the employee had committed employment misconduct. As the Court stated, "[p]ut another way, an employee's expectation that the employer will follow its disciplinary procedures has no bearing on whether the employee's conduct violated the standards the employer has a reasonable right to expect or whether any such violation is serious."

It is important to note that the Court was not asked to review whether the employee had been wrongfully terminated.

Also, the question of whether an employee's conduct amounts to employment misconduct depends on the circumstances of each case. It is important to consult with experienced employment counsel, such as the attorneys of Patrick Burns & Associates, for any employment issues.

The case is Stagg v. Vintage Place, Inc., 2011 WL 1485426 (Minn. April 20, 2011).

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