Monday, January 28, 2013

Unemployment compensation and voluntary termination: when in doubt, ask.

It is unusual for issues arising from unemployment compensation cases to reach the court of appeals, much less the Michigan Supreme Court.  It is also unusual to have a law student argue before the court of appeals.  Nevertheless, the unusual happened which resulted in the reversal of a denial of benefits.

In Sheppard v. Meijer Great Lakes Limited, the court of appeals reversed the trial court's and the Board of Review's denial of unemployment compensation benefits.  Sheppard worked as full time receptionist for an unrelated  company and also worked as a part time clerk for Meijer.  Sheppard was terminated from the full time position because of financial difficulties and requested a two month leave of absence from Meijer. She spoke with her supervisor who told her that she would need formal written approval from the store manager.  There was confusion concerning who told what to whom, but the supervisor testified that Sheppard left believing she had approval of the leave.  The store manager subsequently terminated her after determining that the leave was not authorized because there was nothing in the personnel file requesting leave.

Initially, Sheppard received her benefits.  The company sought a re-determination of the approval of benefits and claimed that Sheppard had voluntarily resigned, and the position was upheld.  The Board of Review determined that Sheppard had voluntarily quit her job when she took the two month leave.

Sheppard sought leave to appeal which was denied by a 2-1 decision of the court of appeals on the basis that the appeal lacked merit.  The Michigan Supreme Court remanded the case to the court of appeals for consideration.  On remand, the court of appeals held that the Board of Review erred in finding that Sheppard quit her job when she took the leave of absence.  The threshold question is whether the employee quit or was fired.  The court noted that it has previously held that when an employee requests a leave of absence and the employer actually terminates the employee, the employee has not voluntarily quit.  Once it was determined that Sheppard did not voluntarily quit her job, the inquiry should end, and she is entitled to benefits.

Why did this case get to the courts, much less result in a an employee's termination?  The request for leave was made on February 8, 2009, and she was terminated on March 29, 2009.  The court of appeals' decision on the merits was issued on December 20, 2012.  It seems like this case could have resolved easily by the store manager asking the supervisor if he had any knowledge of the leave or the employee's status.  If all that was missing was a written request from the employee, why not ask the employee to submit one instead of terminating her?  This case is not one where the employee simply left with the employer having no notice.   Perhaps there is more to the story than is found in the court of appeals' decision.  On the reported facts, this case could have and should have been resolved without either a termination or a lengthy appeal.  If there is a question about an employee, why not ask?

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