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Justices uphold denial of benefits for fired employee

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Indiana Justice Steven David authored a unanimous opinion Wednesday in which the court held “when the facts of a case support more than one statutory ground for discharge, we are not confined to narrowly review the [Indiana Department of Workforce Development] Review Board’s decision when the facts point to the Review Board’s ultimately correct conclusion.”

In J.M. v. Review Board of the Indiana Dept. of Workforce Development and T.C., 93S02-1203-EX-138, the Supreme Court upheld the denial of unemployment benefits to J.M., a former employee in an unnamed county surveyor’s office. J.M. sought to take a class during work hours and make up the time later by working through lunch and working later hours. His supervisor told J.M. that he could take the class, but he would have to use vacation time instead, as that has been the office policy.

The employee handbook also states an employee can face discipline for “disobeying a reasonable order … or to comply with written or verbal instructions.”

J.M. took the class anyway, and did not log all missed hours with personal time. He instead worked through a lunch and came in early sometimes. He was fired in September 2010.

His unemployment claim was initially denied, but an administrative law judge reversed. The county appealed, and the review board reversed, finding J.M. violated the direction from his supervisor as well as the policy in the handbook. The Court of Appeals then reversed the board.

The justices affirmed the review board. The board found J.M. was discharged for just cause based on I.C. 22-4-15-1(d)(2) – “knowing violation of a reasonable and uniformly enforced rule of an employer, including a rule regarding attendance.” The COA found J.M. did not violate (d)(2), but did not consider (d)(5) – “refusing to obey instructions” – because it was not named in the conclusions of law by the review board. Subsection (d)(5) mirrors the policy in the handbook.

The Supreme Court did not agree with the lower appellate court that it could not affirm a just cause finding on a different ground than one cited by the review board. David pointed out that the findings of fact state that the project manager told J.M. that he could miss work, but that policy would not allow him to make up the time. The findings of basic fact are within the scope of the substantial-evidence standard of review, the justices held.

“We may rely on a different statutory ground of a just cause finding than the one relied upon by the Review Board when, as here, the Review Board’s findings of fact clearly establish the alternate subsection’s applicability. As such, we affirm the Review Board under Indiana Code section 22-4-15-1(d)(5), that J.M. refused to obey instructions, and was thus fired for just cause,” he wrote.
 

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