Sunday, March 21, 2010

March Madness and Unemployment Compensation

If you try hard enough, you can spot employment law lessons anywhere... even March Madness. The biggest controversy in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament thus far is a lane violation call in the Michigan State - New Mexico State game in the first round.

The Free Press compiled a collection of some of the criticism of the call: "Ridiculous;" "The official should have pocketed the whistle;" and "horrendous, horrendous call." Here's video of the call in question. A New Mexico State player puts his foot in the lane before the foul shot... this is a violation.

So what's the problem? Chris Chase, quoted in the Free Press article, hits the nail on the head: "Lane violations happen on a majority of free throws and are almost never whistled." That really bothers us for some reason. Even though the call was likely correct under NCAA rules, it just doesn't seem fair because it's not usually called. Which brings us to the Unemployment Compensation (UC) lesson.

Under Pennsylvania UC law, an employee who is terminated for willful violation of an employer's rule has committed "willful misconduct" and is generally ineligible for UC benefits. We like rules, and expect people to follow them. But when an employer applies a rule inconsistently, we feel the same sense of unfairness that provoked outrage over the lane violation call.

Take the case of Remcon Plastics v. UC Board of Review, 651 A.2d 671 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1994). The Claimant,
"candidly admitted that, contrary to Employer policy prohibiting fighting, he and a co-worker freely entered into and participated in an altercation on Employer's premises."
The Claimant was terminated, the co-worker was not. The claimant argued that "an employer must enforce rules equally in order to establish a standard of conduct."

The Court stated that it, "must consider whether similarly situated people are treated differently, based upon an improper criteria." The employer offered no evidence of proper criteria necessitating the different treatment of the two employees. Hence, the employee was granted UC benefits, despite his clear violation of the employer's rule.

We dislike inconsistent application of rules, whether it's basketball or employment. Simple lesson for employers: Apply your rules consistently.

Posted by Philip Miles, an employment lawyer with McQuaide Blasko in State College, Pennsylvania.