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Matthew v. Aspen Water

February 3, 2011


Appeal from the Industrial Commission of the State of Idaho. The decision of the Industrial Commission is affirmed.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: J. Jones, Justice.

Boise, January 2011 Term

2011 Opinion No. 15

Matthew Adams appeals the Industrial Commission's determination that he is not eligible for unemployment benefits because he was terminated for employment-related misconduct. We affirm.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Matthew Adams was employed by Aspen Water, Inc., a firm that sells and services water softening systems, from September of 2007 until his termination on November 4, 2008. Adams worked as an installer and generally spent his time conducting installations, making service calls, or completing paperwork around the office. In October of 2008, Adams sustained a workplace injury and was placed on light duty.

The events that led to Adams' termination occurred on November 3, 2008. On that morning, Adams completed a service call around 9:30 a.m. After completing the service call, he took an early lunch break. After his lunch break, Adams went to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to renew his driver's license. After realizing the line to renew his license was too long, he returned to work around 12:35 p.m. Around 2:00 p.m., Adams turned in his log sheet, left work in his personal vehicle, and again returned to the DMV to attempt to renew his driver's license. Adams did not seek permission from anyone at Aspen prior to visiting the DMV on either occasion.

3:00 p.m., while Adams was at the DMV the second time, Terry Sidwell, the owner of Aspen, called Adams on his company cell phone, and Adams informed Sidwell that he was at the DMV. Adams did not return to work after visiting the DMV for the second time. Adams was terminated the following day for leaving work without permission and failing to notify anyone at Aspen that he would not be returning to work. Aspen did not fill Adams' position as an installer following his termination.

Adams subsequently submitted a claim for unemployment benefits, and the Idaho Department of Labor (IDL) initially found that he was not eligible for benefits because he was terminated for employment-related misconduct.*fn1 Adams then appealed the decision regarding his eligibility status, and a telephonic hearing was held on the matter before the IDL Appeals Examiner. At the hearing, Adams argued that his termination was not a result of any misconduct on his part but, rather, was a result of Aspen's desire to terminate him for financial reasons. According to Adams, prior to his termination, Aspen had been experiencing financial problems, including gas credit cards being shut off and accounts at their plumbing supply store being frozen. Adams argued that Aspen was motivated to terminate him due to its financial distress, which is why his position was not filled after he was terminated. Adams also contended that Aspen was upset with him for filing a workers' compensation claim to cover the work-related injury that he had incurred two weeks prior to his termination, which was another possible motive for his termination.*fn2

Additionally, while Adams conceded he did not notify Aspen prior to visiting the DMV on either occasion, he testified that it was common for installers at Aspen, including himself, to run personal errands on company time as long as it did not interfere with service calls or other jobrelated responsibilities. Adams acknowledged the existence of a provision in Aspen's employee handbook that required employees to obtain permission prior to attending to personal business during work hours, but asserted that Aspen never followed this policy and continuously allowed employees to run personal errands during work hours without first notifying Aspen. While Adams did admit at the hearing that he had never previously taken three hours off work in one day without notifying Aspen, he testified that he did not contemplate that the DMV would be so busy that it would take several hours for him to renew his license.

Finally, Adams argued that because Aspen's employee handbook provides for a progressive disciplinary procedure, which includes a verbal or written warning prior to termination, it was unreasonable for Aspen to terminate him without first warning him that he could be terminated for not notifying Aspen before running a personal errand at work. Adams continually asserted that he had never been reprimanded for any of his behavior at work and was a valuable and appreciated employee at Aspen.

On the other hand, Aspen argued that even though it generally tried to work with employees who needed to run personal errands during work, employees were consistently required to adhere to the break policy laid out in the handbook by notifying a supervisor prior to leaving work for personal reasons. Aspen agreed that Adams had previously been allowed to take care of personal business during work hours if it did not interfere with his work responsibilities, but argued that Adams cost the company money when he left work for the entire afternoon without notifying anyone. Finally, Aspen argued that it was not required to warn Adams prior to terminating him because, while the handbook denotes a progressive disciplinary scheme, the handbook also makes clear that it is within the employer's discretion to determine the appropriate corrective action, which includes termination. While Aspen conceded that Adams' actions on November 3 were a one-time incident, it argued that the seriousness of his actions warranted termination.

The Appeals Examiner ultimately concluded that Adams was discharged for reasons unrelated to employee misconduct and, thus, was eligible for unemployment benefits. More specifically, the Appeals Examiner concluded that because it was an accepted practice for installers to run personal errands without notifying Aspen, it was "inappropriate to label the events of [Adams'] final day as any kind of egregious policy violation that justified overriding the progressive disciplinary procedures in favor of immediate termination." The Appeals Examiner also found that because Adams had recently suffered a work-related injury and Aspen had decided not to hire another installer to fill Adams' position, Aspen could have been motivated to terminate Adams for reasons other than misconduct.

Thereafter, Aspen appealed the decision to the Industrial Commission. After conducting a de novo review of the record, the Commission concluded that Adams was not eligible for unemployment benefits because his termination was a result of employment-related misconduct. According to the Commission, the fact that Aspen was experiencing financial difficulties and was unhappy that Adams had applied for workers' compensation did not excuse Adams from leaving work in the middle of the day without permission. The Commission found that even though it was common for installers at Aspen to take time off work to run short personal errands, such as trips to the bank, without first notifying Aspen, Adams did more than simply run a short errand when he took three hours off in a single day to conduct personal business. The Commission further found that although the record did not establish that Aspen communicated to Adams its expectation that he obtain permission prior to taking an extended ...

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