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.”


A quick look at what remains on the Iowa Supreme Court’s 2015-2016 docket

By: Rox Laird on April 25th, 2016

The Iowa Supreme Court is headed toward the home stretch of its current term, with 71 decisions on the books and 29 yet to be decided.

Among the questions yet to be decided is defining what the Iowa Constitution means by “infamous crimes” that deny voting rights to convicted criminals. (Griffin v. Pate; see “Griffin v. Pate: Does the meaning of ‘infamous crime’ come down to what Justice Appel thinks?” for background).

The outcome of a medical malpractice lawsuit against a Des Moines pain doctor no doubt will generate news (Estate of Gray v. Baldi; see “Iowa Supreme Court to hold evening argument in case involving the death of a rock star and the constitutional rights of the unborn”).

And the court also has yet to rule on the question of whether you in effect quit your job if you spend nearly a month in jail on charges that are later dismissed (see “Iowa Supreme Court takes up unemployment case involving jailed employee”).

The court heard its final oral argument for its 2015-16 term in Clinton on April 14, and the justices are now devoting their energies to writing the remaining opinions. Decisions are expected in those cases by the end of June, and the court will then move to an administrative break when it considers rules changes and other judicial administration matters.

Among the oldest cases still to be decided are four argued last September, with the bulk of undecided cases argued in March and April.

In addition to the voting rights, unemployment and Baldi cases,  there is always the possibility that any one of the rulings expected in the coming weeks will contain surprises. Stay tuned.

[UPDATE: This post was amended to correct the number of outstanding decisions.]


Iowa Supreme Court takes up unemployment case involving jailed employee

By: Administrator on November 18th, 2015

Have you in effect quit your job if you spend nearly a month in jail on charges that are later dismissed?

That’s the question that the Iowa Supreme Court will face when it it convenes for oral arguments on Thursday.   The answer could reverse 40 years of Iowa unemployment insurance policy decisions and affect future cases where employees miss work for reasons that are not of their own making.


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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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