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Criminal Charges and the UC Process

Willful misconduct in the workplace may rise to the level of criminal conduct, resulting in an arrest, criminal charges and, oftentimes, discharge from employment.  If the former employee then files a claim for UC benefits, the employer must still establish that the claimant engaged in willful misconduct, which has been defined as:

1)   An act of wanton or willful disregard of the employer’s interests;

2)   A deliberate violation of the employer’s rules;

3)   A disregard of standards of behavior which the employer has a right to expect of an employee; or,

4)   Negligence indicating an intentional disregard of the employer’s interests or of the employee’s duties and obligations to the employer.[1]

 The employer may easily meet its burden of proof if the claimant has been convicted of the criminal charges arising out of that same conduct.

Unfortunately, the criminal justice system does not move as swiftly as the UC process.  While the UCBR may defer a decision on the UC appeal until a disposition is rendered in the criminal action, it rarely does so.  As such, the employer must still present evidence and testimony of witnesses with firsthand knowledge of the alleged misconduct.  The employer must be fully prepared to present its case despite the pending criminal proceeding.

Situations also arise in which an employee is discharged as a result of non-work-related criminal charges.  Under these circumstances, the employer is often unfamiliar with and has no firsthand knowledge as to the facts and circumstances resulting in the claimant’s arrest.  How then does an employer defeat the claimant’s claim for UC benefits?  Section 3 of the UC Law is used to disqualify claimants for non-work-related misconduct which: (1) is inconsistent with acceptable standards of behavior and (2) which directly affects the claimant’s ability to perform his assigned duties.[2]

For example, in the case of Hawkins v. UCBR,[3] the claimant, who worked as a corrections officer for the Clearfield County Prison, was charged with welfare fraud.  He and his wife signed an application for welfare benefits without making required disclosure of the wife’s stock ownership or dividend income.  The claimant testified that he signed the application with the understanding that his wife would determine how to report income from her stock holdings; however, his wife apparently neglected to follow through.  They were both originally charged with a felony violation, but pursuant to a plea agreement, claimant pled guilty to a third degree misdemeanor and paid restitution of $14,696.70.  The claimant testified that he felt he had no choice but to enter the plea.  UC benefits were denied.  The prison warden testified that the claimant was responsible for the care, custody and control of inmates, distribution of their mail, collection of inmate funds and the deposit of those funds into a deposit box.  The warden also testified that honesty and integrity are important characteristics for the corrections officer position.  Because of claimant’s guilty plea, the warden believed that he could no longer trust the claimant to perform his duties, particularly the handling of the inmates’ money.  Moreover, the warden learned of the claimant’s conviction from an inmate; as a result, the warden determined that knowledge of the claimant’s conviction among the inmates would have an adverse impact on his ability to perform his job.  Thus, the Commonwealth Court determined that there was substantial evidence of record demonstrating that the claimant’s conduct was incompatible with his job responsibilities and directly reflected upon his ability to perform his assigned duties.  Consequently, given the claimant’s guilty plea and the warden’s testimony, the employer satisfied the two-prong test set forth above, thereby rendering the claimant ineligible for benefits under Section 3 of the UC Law.

But, in the case of Green v. UCBR,[4] a contrary result occurred.  In that case, the claimant, a Supervisor of Environmental Support at a hospital, was suspended after the hospital received a report that Green had been charged with a crime in a non-work-related incident.  An investigation revealed that Green had been charged with 5 crimes: involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with a person under age 16, aggravated indecent assault of a person less than age 13, indecent assault of a person less than age 16, endangering the welfare of children and corruption of minors.  The hospital dismissed Green before any disposition of the criminal charges had been reached.   Green filed for UC benefits, which were granted by the Referee.  The hospital appealed and the UCBR held the case stayed until the criminal charges were resolved.  A later factual hearing revealed that all but one of the charges against Green had been dismissed.  Green pled nolo contendere to the one remaining charge, endangering the welfare of children.  Although evidence of the claimant’s plea of nolo contendere was offered, the hospital presented no testimony to establish that the conviction directly reflected upon Green’s ability to perform his assigned duties.  No testimony was offered to establish the degree of trust placed in Green by his employer, and no reasons were offered as to why the conviction would impact Green’s ability to perform his job.  Consequently, benefits were allowed.

The bottom line is that the Court will evaluate a claim for UC benefits under Section 3 of the Law by considering the following:

1)   Is the conduct at issue inconsistent with acceptable standards of behavior;

2)   What is the specific nature of the offense committed by the claimant;

3)   Does the claimant’s job require any special degree of trust on the part of the employer; and,

4)   Are there any other circumstances which may particularly affect the claimant’s ability to do his job, including whether the crime occurred on or off the employer’s premises, and whether or not it involved any of employer’s other workers or clients.

It is the employer’s burden to present the evidence to establish the existence of these factors through competent evidence and, to the extent possible, through testimony from witnesses with firsthand knowledge of the facts of the incident, as well as through testimony from a competent witness who can explain the ramifications and impact of the claimant’s criminal activity on his or her continued employment.

[1] See e.g., Grieb v. UCBR, 573 Pa. 594, 827 A.2d 422 (2003).

[2] See e.g., Burger v. UCBR, 569 Pa. 139, 801 A.2d 487    (2002).

[3] Hawkins v. UCBR, 695 A.2d 963 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1997).

[4] Green v. UCBR, 2011 Pa. Commw. Unpub. LEXIS 560; 2011 WL 10858410.

For a confidential analysis of your unemployment compensation issues, or questions about TRC’s unemployment compensation practice area, please contact Margaret M. Hock, Esquire at (412) 316-8647 or [email protected].

Important NoticeThis information is intended for general guidance only, and should not be used as a substitute for specific legal advice.  For specific legal advice applicable to your situation, you should consult an attorney of your choice.  Although believed to be accurate when written, no guarantee of completeness or accuracy to your particular circumstances should be implied.  Laws, regulations, and court decisions in this area change frequently, and you should consult the attorney of your choice for up-to-date information.