Court guts unemployment rule on jailed workers

By: Rox Laird on June 6th, 2016

You can be fired for missing work because you are in jail, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you will be denied unemployment insurance benefits.

That’s according to the Iowa Supreme Court in a 4-3 ruling that gutted an Iowa administrative rule applied to such situations for more than 40 years.

Appellant Sondra Irving was fired from her job at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City after missing work while she was in jail for nearly a month on a domestic violence charge, which was later dismissed. (For background on the case, see our earlier post, “Iowa Supreme Court takes up unemployment case involving jailed employee.”)

The Iowa Employment Appeal Board denied Irving’s unemployment claim because her absences while she was sitting in jail amounted to “misconduct” and that she had, in effect, quit her job.

The Supreme Court reversed that decision and a rule the state agency has followed for 40 years.

In an opinion written by Justice Brent Appel joined by Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices David Wiggins and Daryl Hecht, the majority said “involuntary incarceration, at least where the charges are dismissed,” falls within the definition of “other reasonable grounds” for absence as defined in state rules.

The state agency that administers unemployment insurance claims has for four decades followed a clear-cut rule: An employee fired for excessive absences is not eligible for state benefits even if the absences are seemingly legitimate, such as car problems, babysitters not showing up or even being confined in jail.

But the Court said in Friday’s ruling that it has previously held that “that mere absenteeism is not a consequence that amounts to disqualifying misconduct under unemployment insurance statutes.” There must be an element of “volition” – that is, the act of making a choice – to deny unemployment benefit.

Rather than following a hard-and-fast rule in cases where the absences are due to incarceration, the Court said the facts of each case should be weighed.

“Based upon our review of the statute, the authorities, and applicable caselaw, we conclude that a voluntary quit as a matter of law requires a volitional act on the part of the employee,” Appel wrote. “We do not think that incarceration, in and of itself, can ever be considered ‘volitional’ or ‘voluntary.’ Indeed, incarceration is perhaps the ultimate nonvolitional act.”

This outcome is good news for Sondra Irving and others in her circumstance. But it may leave employers wondering about their liability. Unemployment insurance was created to encourage reliable employment and to buffer temporary unemployment. At the same time, the system was not intended to force employers to pay benefits to workers fired for good cause, including not showing up for work.

For that reason, three justices disagreed with the majority’s decision. Justice Thomas Waterman, joined by Justices Edward Mansfield and Bruce Zager, said the majority decision “replaces a clear rule with uncertainty” and it will leave employers guessing about who is entitled to collect unemployment benefits.

Two factors in the Irving case may have influenced the justices in the majority. First, the charges were dismissed when the complainant withdrew the allegations that led to Irving’s arrest. Second, the reason she was unable to go to work is because she could not raise the money to post bail.

In a special concurrence, Chief Justice Cady joined by Justice Wiggins said the state’s rule regarding unemployment claims can work a hardship in such cases. Unlike those with the resources to post bond, Cady wrote, those without the resources disproportionately “suffer the consequences of the absenteeism rule” enforced by the state for four decades.

“Justice in our state will be advanced when all implicit bias found in our laws and rules can be identified and eliminated,” Cady wrote. “This case is one example and is a step in the right direction.”

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
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