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Section 288.030.1(23) of the Missouri Revised Statutes defines “misconduct” for purposes of unemployment benefits as:

an act of wanton or willful disregard of the employer’s interest, a deliberate violation of the employer’s rules, a disregard of standards of behavior which the employer has the right to expect of his or her employee, or negligence in such degree or recurrence as to manifest culpability, wrongful intent or evil design, or show an intentional and substantial disregard of the employer’s interest or of the employee’s duties and obligations to the employer.

In analyzing and interpreting the above definition, Missouri courts have concluded that there is a vast distinction between a reason to fire and “misconduct” which further warrants a forfeiture of unemployment benefits. This principle is consistent, long-standing and very clear.

The Missouri Court of Appeals recently reaffirmed this “vast distinction” and put the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission on clear notice of its displeasure with the Commission’s misunderstanding of “misconduct.”  In Mooneyham v. Barnz B, Inc., et al., No. SD30903 (Mo. App. S.D. July 12, 2011), the claimant was told during a performance review that her job duties would change and that her hourly pay would be reduced.  After the meeting, the claimant called the president of her employer and told the president that she wanted a job description for her new position.  The president refused to provide her with a job description, and told the claimant that she would have the job description for her in the morning.  The claimant again requested the job description, and the president finally told the claimant not to push the issue or she would fire her.  The claimant responded with “God bless you, and sweet dreams,” and then hung up the phone.  The president then called the claimant back and left a message stating that the claimant’s employment had been terminated.

Upon termination, the claimant sought unemployment benefits and the employer protested.  The appeals tribunal ruled that the claimant was disqualified from benefits due to her misconduct, and specifically her confrontational behavior during the telephone conversation.  The Labor and Industrial Relations Commission affirmed the appeals tribunal’s decision.

On appeal, the Missouri Court of Appeals noted that “misconduct” is to be construed least favorably toward a forfeiture of unemployment benefits.  The court also cited three Missouri opinions which supported a finding that the claimant’s single telephone confrontation did not rise to the level of disqualifying conduct.  For instance, in TAMKO Building Products, Inc. v. Frankoski, 258 S.W.3d 575 (Mo. App. S.D. 2008), the Missouri appellate court held that heated words to a direct supervisor, although poor judgment, was not the type of willful misconduct that disqualified the claimant from unemployment benefits.  Finally, the court in Mooneyham emphasized that when the president of the company told her not to push the issue or she would fire her, the claimant did as directed.

Based upon the facts presented, the Missouri Court of Appeals held that the employer did not meet its burden of showing that the claimant’s conduct rose to the level of “misconduct” as defined under RSMo. § 288.030.1(23).  In its opinion, the court noted its displeasure with the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission by stating:  “[w]e would be remiss if we failed to note the recent frequency of Commission error in finding benefit-disqualifying misconduct.”  The court went on to cite nine cases that the Missouri appellate courts had reversed within the six months prior to its decision.