The Missouri Court of Appeals recently held that an employee’s termination based upon lying or falsifying documents should not result in a denial of unemployment benefits based upon “misconduct connected with work” unless the falsification is material to the employment. In Seck v. Division of Employment Security, the claimant sustained injuries to his shoulder and thumb that required treatment. He was later diagnosed with a left shoulder strain and thumb pain. The claimant’s doctor released him to return to light-duty work, but not full time. When the claimant reported back to work, his employer did not have any light-duty jobs available, so the employer said he could not return to work until he had a full release.
On August 2, 2011, the claimant obtained a Medical Certification from his doctor releasing him to return to work without restriction that same day. The next day, the claimant faxed a copy of the Medical Certification to his employer. On the form, the claimant personally wrote “finish medicine [sic] and return to work 8/8,” which gave the impression that his doctor would not allow him to return to work until August 8.
The claimant’s employer ultimately discovered the falsification on the Medication Certification and terminated him for falsifying the doctor’s note. The claimant thereafter filed for unemployment benefits. Both the Missouri Division of Employment Security and the Appeals Tribunal denied the claimant’s request for benefits, concluding that the claimant had been discharged from his employment for falsifying his doctor’s note to change his return to work date from August 2 to August 8, and that such actions constituted misconduct connected with his work. The Labor and Industrial Relations Commission (the “Commission”) thereafter affirmed the decision of the Appeals Tribunal.
On appeal, the claimant argued that the Commission erred in denying him benefits because his conduct was not sufficient to support a finding of misconduct. In reversing the Commission’s decision, the Missouri Court of Appeals noted that there is a vast distinction between conduct justifying an employee’s termination and misconduct precluding unemployment benefits. Work-related misconduct must involve a willful violation of the rules or the standards of the employer.
While the court stated that willfully falsifying documents with the intent to deceive an employer can constitute misconduct related to work, the court further explained that any such falsification must be material to the employee’s employment. In this case, the court noted, the record did not show that the falsification on the Medical Certification was of any import to the employer. Indeed, the employer did not submit any evidence showing that employees were required to present a doctor’s note to take a sick day. Employees were only required to present a doctor’s note to return to work without restriction, which the claimant did. Moreover, no evidence was presented to suggest that the employer wanted or needed the claimant to return to work prior to August 8, so no harm to the employer was shown.
In the end, the Missouri Court of Appeals found that while the claimant’s conduct may have justified his termination, it did not rise to the higher standard of misconduct connected with work.