Monday, February 29, 2016

Acting in self-defense when accosted by others while at work did not constitute disqualifying misconduct within the meaning of the Unemployment Insurance Law


Acting in self-defense when accosted by others while at work did not constitute disqualifying misconduct within the meaning of the Unemployment Insurance Law
Matter of Chirico (City of Syracuse--Commissioner of Labor), 2016 NY Slip Op 01027, Appellate Division, Third Department

Anthony D. Chirico worked for the City of Syracuse as a motor equipment operator for about 10 months. After parking the truck he was driving, three individuals, two of whom were carrying golf clubs, assaulted him. After being struck with a golf club, Chirico grabbed one of the golf clubs and swung the club to ward off the three attackers. A few days later the City terminated Chirico from his employment for "unsatisfactory work performance."

Chirico then applied for, and received, unemployment insurance benefits. The Department of Labor, however, subsequently determined that Chiricolost his employment with the City due to actions that constituted misconduct in connection with that employment, thus disqualifying him from receiving benefits.

Ordered to reimburse the City for the unemployment insurance benefits he had received,* Chirico appealed. Although the Administrative Law Judge [ALJ] upheld the Department's determination, the Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board reversed the ALJ’s ruling and determined that Chirico was entitled to receive unemployment insurance benefits because, in its view, his actions were in self-defense and did not constitute disqualifying misconduct.

The City appealed the Board’s determination, contending that Chirico not entitled to receive unemployment insurance benefits because he had engaged in disqualifying misconduct while at work. The Appellate Division sustained the Board’s determination, explaining "Whether a claimant has engaged in disqualifying misconduct is a factual question for the Board to resolve and its determination will not be disturbed if supported by substantial evidence."

The court also noted that not every discharge for cause is misconduct within the meaning of the Unemployment Insurance Law, which defines such disqualifying misconduct  conduct as “a willful and wanton disregard of the employer's interest.”

Although engaging in a physical altercation or exchange during the course of one's employment may be found to constitute disqualifying misconduct, here Chirico asserted that [1] he did not initiate the altercation and [2] that he acted in self-defense and appropriately under the circumstances. These assertions, said the court, “presented a credibility issue that the Board could properly choose to credit.”

The City also argued that Chirico had made a “willful false statement” in his application for unemployment insurance benefits. The Appellate Division rejected the City’s contention that Board should have found that such a willful false statement or representation warranted a reduction or forfeiture of Chirico’s unemployment insurance benefits.

The court said that the details of the incident that Chirico provided in his application for unemployment benefits were consistent with his testimony at the hearing, “which the Board credited.” Accordingly, the Appellate Division found no reason to disturb the Board's decision.

* See Labor Law §594

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