ILNews

Justices rule on unemployment benefit cases

Michael W. Hoskins
June 2, 2010
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The Indiana Supreme Court says an employer isn’t allowed to deny someone unemployment benefits if they are fired for absenteeism that’s beyond their control without considering that worker’s overall conduct and attendance.

But that holding only applies to actions undertaken prior to last year’s revisions to the Indiana Unemployment Compensation Act. Revisions lawmakers made last year effectively allow employers to discharge someone who knowingly violates a no-fault attendance policy, whether it’s their fault or not.

Issuing a decision late Tuesday in John D. Giovanoni II v. Review Board of the Indiana Department of Workforce Development and Clarian Health Partners, No. 93S02-0907-EX-311, the justices reversed a decision by the state review board. A second opinion in the case of Lisa M. Beckingham v. Review Board of the Indiana Department of Workforce Development and Cenveo Corporation, No. 93S02-0907-EX-308, applied the same holding and reversed the decision, but remanded it for additional fact-finding as it wasn’t as clear as the Giovanoni case. Justice Frank Sullivan authored both.

Both Beckingham and Giovanoni were fired from their jobs as a result of multiple excused absences, and the review board determined both weren’t eligible to receive unemployment benefits because the employer “no-fault” attendance policies were valid and enforced.

On appeal, a divided Court of Appeals panel last year in Giovanoni ruled that the man wasn’t discharged for just cause and should have received benefits – holding that precedent from 1984 provided a sounder model for determining eligibility for unemployment benefits when the employee is fired for attendance issues. Judge Elaine Brown dissented. In Beckingham, an appellate panel majority affirmed her dismissal but Judge Edward Najam dissented and said he would have followed the reasoning in Giovanoni.

Analyzing the conflicting appellate caselaw on this issue and interpreting state law, the justices also looked to how other states handle this no-fault attendance policy issue. Specifically, the high court relied on the legislative language that says the act should “provide for payment of benefits to persons unemployed through no fault of their own.”

“Thus, the law will not countenance the denial of unemployment compensation under a ‘no-fault’ attendance policy unless a determination is made for just cause in a way that gives full power and effect to the Legislature’s intent,” Justice Sullivan wrote. “And just cause, as it relates to absenteeism, demands an individualized analysis of whether the employee violated the policy through no fault of his or her own.”

Justice Brent Dickson wrote a concurring opinion in Giovanoni and Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard joined him in clarifying that this holding doesn’t apply to the General Assembly’s revisions of state statute last year. They expressed a concern that it could be interpreted to apply to all of the cases, regardless of the changes and despite a majority footnote recognizing that point.

“While footnote 3 in today’s opinion declares ‘We express no opinion as to the statute as amended,’ I am concerned that readers may nevertheless mistakenly apply the majority’s reasoning to future cases construing the 2009 amendments,” he wrote. “These recent changes clearly express the legislature’s intention to include within ‘Discharge for just cause’ a discharge for a knowing violation of a proper attendance rule that includes the application to absences without employee fault. While prior law, applicable here to Giovanoni, precludes a no-fault attendance policy, such result will not be required under current law.”

Justice Dickson dissented in Beckingham, believing the Court of Appeals was correct in affirming the review board’s determination that she was discharged for just cause and not entitled to unemployment benefits.

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