Under the Pennsylvania Unemployment Compensation Law, an employee who is terminated for willful misconduct is generally ineligible for benefits under Section 402(e). However, the trick is that there is no clear definition as to what constitutes “willful misconduct.”
Courts have generally defined “willful misconduct” to be: (1) a wanton and willful disregard of the employer’s interests; (2) a deliberate violation of the employer’s rules; (3) a disregard of the standards of behavior that an employer rightfully can expect from its employees; or (4) negligence that manifests culpability, wrongful intent, evil design, or an intentional and substantial disregard of the employer’s interests or the employee’s duties and obligations. Miller v. UCBR, 83 A.3d 484, 486-487 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2014)(citing Oliver v. UCBR, 5 A.3d 432, 438 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2010).
A recent Commonwealth Court case, Miller v. UCBR, 83 A.3d 484, involved a Claimant who was involved in a workplace altercation. The altercation involved the Claimant and a fellow co-worker. Id. at 486. The co-worker initiated the altercation and the Claimant retaliated in self-defense. Id. Courts have generally held that even in the absence of a written policy, fighting may be considered a disregard of the standards of behavior that an employer can expect from its employees, even when the claimant was not the initial aggressor. Id. at 487. (citing UCBR v. Vojtas, 351 A.2d 700, 702 (1976); Wolfe v. UCBR, 425 A.2d 1218, 1219 (1981).
Fighting is generally construed as “willful misconduct” and will result in disqualification under 402(e) of the Pennsylvania Unemployment Compensation Law. Miller, 83 A.3d 484, 487 (citing Rivera v. UCBR, 526 A.2d 1253, 1255 (1987). However, in some situations, an employee’s use of reasonable force in self-defense is justifiable and will not amount to “willful misconduct.” Miller, 83 A.3d 484, 487; see Sun Oil Company v. UCBR, 408 A.2d 1169, 1171 (1979) (finding a reasonable belief of imminent bodily harm and feared danger of an assault justifies reasonable retaliatory force).
In the recent Commonwealth Court case of Miller, 83 A.3d 484, 487, the Court ruled that Claimant’s use of self-defense was justifiable under 402(e) of the Pennsylvania Unemployment Compensation Law. The Court found that the Claimant was furthering the Employer’s interest, took steps to avoid the confrontation by trying to diffuse the situation and only retaliated in self-defense when Claimant felt an indication of imminent bodily harm. Id.
This case law sets a precedent for future employees who were forced to use self-defense in order protect against imminent bodily harm. The good news is that engaging in self-defense, although technically may still be considered fighting to an employer, is not going to bar an employee from receiving benefits under 402(e) of the Pennsylvania Unemployment Compensation Law.
According to Miller, 83 A.3d 484, 487, as long as the employee was: (1) furthering the Employer’s interest at the time of the altercation, (2) took steps to avoid the confrontation by trying to diffuse the situation and (3) only retaliated in self-defense when faced with imminent bodily harm, the employee’s conduct will not be considered “willful misconduct” under 402(e) of the Pennsylvania Unemployment Compensation Law. The employee’s conduct will not create a bar to unemployment benefits.
Michael Kraemer is a partner with Kraemer, Manes & Associates, a law firm headquartered in Pittsburgh, serving all of Pennsylvania, with attorneys focusing on business law, employment law, litigation, and civil issues. For more information please visit www.lawkm.com.