Wisconsin Court of Appeals Issues Decision on Meaning of “Substantial Fault” in Unemployment

This week, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals issued an important ruling on what “substantial fault” means in the context of unemployment compensation. In 2013, the Wisconsin legislature amended the unemployment insurance statutes to state that, in addition to discharge for misconduct and voluntary termination of work, employees would be denied unemployment benefits if they were terminated by the employer for “substantial fault by the employee connected with the employee’s work.” The statute defines “substantial fault” as “those acts or omissions of an employee over which the employee exercised reasonable control and which violate reasonable requirements of the employee’s employer but does not include any of the following: 1. One or more minor infractions of rules unless an infraction is repeated after the employer warns the employee about the infraction. 2. One or more inadvertent errors made by the employee. 3. Any failure of the employee to perform work because of insufficient skill, ability, or equipment.” Wis. Stat. 108.04(5g)(a).

In Operton v. Labor and Indus. Review Comm’n et al., 2015AP1055 (Wis. Ct. App. April 14, 2016) an employee who worked as a cashier had made eight cash handling errors over twenty months, including not requesting to see identification for a credit card purchase of $399 on what turned out to be a stolen credit card. The employer issued her multiple written warnings, and she was warned that further errors could result in termination. After she failed to get identification related to the stolen credit card, she was terminated for her cash handling errors.

Both the Department of Workforce Development and the Labor and Industry Review Commission (LIRC) found that the employee was ineligible for unemployment benefits because her discharge was for substantial fault based on the fact that she continued to make cash handling errors after receiving multiple warnings. Despite LIRC’s arguments that the court should defer to its experience and judgment in employment issues, the Court of Appeals took a very narrow view of what constitutes “substantial fault.” The Court of Appeals found that there had been no evidence presented that the cash handling errors were “infractions” that violated any specific rule of the employer. The Court of Appeals then went on to determine that the employee’s cash handling errors fell into the second category of what is not substantial fault because they were “inadvertent,” and it did not matter that warnings had been given because that is not a part of the “inadvertent error” analysis.

The important takeaway for Wisconsin employers is the fact that inadvertent errors, even if repeated after a warning, do not constitute substantial fault under the unemployment statutes. Therefore, in issuing warnings for performance-related deficiencies, employers need to cite specific policies and rules that the employee has violated. This will give employers a better chance of showing that the employee has committed an infraction, rather than an inadvertent error, and should be denied unemployment benefits if such an infraction is repeated. At this point in time, it is not certain as to whether this matter will be taken to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. We will keep you updated on any further developments.

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