North Carolina Court Takes Three-Step Approach To ‘Just Cause’

John Warren was a sergeant for the North Carolina State Highway Patrol. In 2007, Warren stowed an open bottle of vodka in the trunk of his Patrol-issued vehicle and drove to a party. He could have used his personal vehicle, but he elected not to because he was concerned that he would wake his aunt (with whom he was residing at the time) in an effort to get the keys to his personal vehicle. After Warren arrived at the party, deputies of the Nash County Sheriff’s Office were called because of an altercation between two women. The deputies arrested Warren, who had consumed a significant amount of alcohol at some point that evening, because they believed he was already impaired before driving to the party.

After an investigation, the Patrol fired Warren. Though Warren was not covered by a collective bargaining agreement, a North Carolina statute requires that career state employees like Warren cannot be disciplined without “just cause.” A series of administrative appeals led Warren’s case to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, which squarely faced the question of what the principle “just cause” means under the statute. In particular, the Court was required to analyze how the principles of “just cause” apply to off-duty conduct.

In sending the case back to a trial court for further hearings that would apply the standard it was announcing, the Appeals Court ruled that “where an employee has engaged in off-duty criminal conduct, the agency need not show actual harm to its interests to demonstrate just cause for an employee’s dismissal. However, it is well established that administrative agencies may not engage in arbitrary and capricious conduct. Accordingly, we hold that in cases in which an employee has been dismissed based upon an act of off-duty criminal conduct, the agency must demonstrate that the dismissal is supported by the existence of a rational nexus between the type of criminal conduct committed and the potential adverse impact on the employee’s future ability to perform for the agency.

“Our research has not discovered any binding precedent applying the rational-nexus test to non-criminal conduct. The rationale for applying this test is that some off-duty criminal violations may have little bearing on the employee’s job. We decline to extend this test to non-criminal conduct.”

Quoting from a number of sources, the Court then turned to the heart of the issue – the definition of “just cause.” As the Court saw it, “‘just cause,’ like justice itself, is not susceptible of precise definition. It is a flexible concept, embodying notions of equity and fairness, that can only be determined upon an examination of the facts and circumstances of each individual case. Thus, not every violation of law gives rise to ‘just cause’ for employee discipline.

“The nature and severity of the employee’s offense, among other things, will determine what form of discipline is appropriate. A small departure from ‘satisfactory’ work may result in a verbal or written warning. A more serious or repeated offense may produce a suspension without pay. In an extreme case, the employer may be justified in discharging an employee.

“We conclude that the best way to accommodate the flexibility and fairness requirements for just cause is to balance the equities after the unacceptable personal conduct analysis. The proper analytical approach is to first determine whether the employee engaged in the conduct the employer alleges. The second inquiry is whether the employee’s conduct falls within one of the categories of unacceptable personal conduct provided by the Administrative Code. Unacceptable personal conduct does not necessarily establish just cause for all types of discipline. If the employee’s act qualifies as a type of unacceptable conduct, the tribunal proceeds to the third inquiry: whether that misconduct amounted to just cause for the disciplinary action taken. Just cause must be determined based ‘upon an examination of the facts and circumstances of each individual case.”

Warren v. North Carolina Dept. of Crime Control & Public Safety, North Carolina Highway Patrol, 726 S.E.2d 920 (N.C. App. 2012).

Note: “Just cause” is the disciplinary standard that exists in almost every public safety collective bargaining agreement. Though North Carolina is a non-union state, the analysis of the Court of Appeals is in many ways strikingly similar to how an arbitrator might view just cause. Phrased a bit differently, “just cause” requires that employee violate a rule, that there be a nexus or relationship between the employee’s conduct and harm to the employer, and that the punishment chosen by the employer be proportionate to the offense.