The ‘Misconduct’ Standard In Unemployment Cases

There are a few cases dealing with when terminated public safety employees are entitled to unemployment compensation. As a result, it may surprise some employers to learn that to deny unemployment benefits, they usually have to prove not just that the employee violated a work rule, but also that the employee engaged in “misconduct,” a high standard under the law.

A recent decision of the Wyoming Supreme Court shows the “misconduct” standard in action. The case involved Sean Ringrose, a Laramie County deputy. Ringrose and another deputy, Kenneth Cook, worked off-duty security at the Outlaw Saloon in Cheyenne starting the evening of Saturday, December 26, 2009, and continuing into the early morning hours of Sunday, December 27, 2009. Although Ringrose was in his department uniform, he was paid and supervised by the Outlaw Saloon.

A fight erupted at the bar, with the combatants being an airman stationed at a nearby Air Force base and an off-duty Cheyenne Police Department officer. Ringrose did not see the fight, but a staff member asked that the men be removed from the bar. Ringrose escorted the officer outside, while Cook took charge of the airman. Although it appeared to Ringrose that the officer was not the instigator of the fight, the officer remained angry and was cursing at the airman. Ringrose instructed the officer to remain where he was while he asked Cook, who was using his radio to request an ambulance for the airman, to contact the watch commander. Ignoring Ringrose’s instruction, the officer got into a car and left the bar.

The Department fired Ringrose, concluding he violated Department policies by failing to file a report of the incident without being ordered to do so, failing to take photographs of either the officer or the airman, and failing to follow up at the hospital to determine the seriousness of the airman’s injuries. The Department then attempted to deny Ringrose’s claim for unemployment compensation, claiming he had engaged in “misconduct.”

The Wyoming Supreme Court rejected the Department’s position, and affirmed an order of Wyoming’s Unemployment Insurance Division awarding Ringrose benefits. The Court started with the proposition that a terminated employee is generally entitled to unemployment benefits unless the employer can prove the employee engaged in misconduct. Under Wyoming law (and in most states), “misconduct” means a serious disregard of (1) the employer’s interests or (2) the commonly accepted duties, obligations and responsibilities of an employee. As described by the Court, “this would include carelessness or negligence of such degree or recurrence as to reveal willful intent or an intentional disregard of the employer’s interests or of the employee’s duties and obligations to his employer. Inefficiency or failure in good performance as the result of inability or incapacity; ordinary negligence in isolated instances or good faith errors in judgment or discretion are not deemed to be misconduct within the meaning of the law.”

The Court concluded Ringrose did not engage in misconduct. The Court held that “the County does not direct us to any evidence which establishes that Ringrose intentionally acted contrary to his employment responsibilities or willfully and intentionally disregarded known employer interests. The Department does have a policy requiring an off-duty deputy to perform his duties required by law and department policy and procedure; however, we are not directed to any evidence that Department policy or procedure specifically required that photographs be taken at the scene or a deputy check on a victim’s condition at the hospital. Furthermore, there is no showing that Ringrose was aware of any such requirements. Consequently, his failure to do so was neither willful nor intentional, but was, at most, a good faith inadvertent error. On this record, there was substantial evidence to support the decision that Ringrose was not terminated for misconduct so as to disqualify him for unemployment benefits.”

Ringrose v. Laramie County, Wyoming, 2013 WL 2420972 (Wy. 2013).