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An insurance adjuster who was terminated after using an internal system to trace a license plate number for personal purposes cannot claim ignorance of the company’s privacy rules to reverse a termination of unemployment benefits. Such a misuse of personal information, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court has ruled, is willful misconduct in violation of § 402(e) of the Unemployment Compensation Law. The seriousness of the employee’s conduct “was so obvious that [his] discharge was a natural consequence of his behavior,” Judge Doris A. Smith-Ribner wrote in Orend v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review. According to Smith-Ribner’s opinion, Nathaniel P. Orend, a senior claims adjuster for Nationwide Insurance Co., entered into an electronic system a license plate number for a motor vehicle that allegedly came close to striking his girlfriend while she was walking his dog. He used his birth date in place of a valid claim number to acquire the name and address of the driver, the opinion states. After learning of this, Nationwide terminated Orend on April 19, 2002, finding him in violation of the company’s code of conduct, Privacy Act policy, bonding policy and electronic communications policy. Orend was initially granted unemployment benefits by the Duquesne Unemployment Compensation Service Center, but Nationwide appealed. An unemployment compensation referee subsequently denied benefits, and the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review affirmed the referee’s decision. On appeal to the Commonwealth Court, Orend argued that because he unknowingly violated the policies, he cannot be found guilty of willful misconduct. “Orend points out that neither employer’s policy manuals nor its training program mentions such a prohibition or indicates that license numbers are private information,” Smith-Ribner wrote. Furthermore, Orend “argues that employer’s zeal in defending the claim simply may be an excuse for its failure to properly train employees in the area of practical privacy issues.” The board of review countered that Orend, as a senior claims adjuster with 20 months of experience with the company, should have known of and abided by Nationwide’s privacy policies and ethical standards, which were stipulated in documents titled “Privacy Act, Frequently Asked Questions” and “Employer’s Human Resources Policy Guide.” Orend also asserted that the referee and the board of review erred in concluding that his conduct jeopardized Nationwide’s business, noting that case law has indicated that only obvious violations, such as committing an illegal activity or sleeping on the job, merit such a conclusion. The court panel, however, held that transgressing the company’s privacy policy is such an obvious violation that it disregards the employer’s interests and jeopardizes its business. “It should be obvious that Orend may not use employer’s resources to trace license plate information on the company’s system for personal use,” Smith-Ribner wrote. “Moreover, such misuse of motor vehicle records could prompt the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to limit access to those records, thereby hindering employer’s ability to do business in the state.” The court further found that Orend was sufficiently informed of Nationwide’s privacy policies and, thus, “had a duty to act with integrity to maintain a work environment that was supportive of ethical business practices and transactions.” Therefore, the court concluded, Orend’s substitution of his birth date in place of a valid claim number to trace a third party’s license plate number constitutes willful misconduct in violation of § 402(e) of the Unemployment Compensation Law. Judges Mary Hannah Leavitt and Charles P. Mirarchi Jr. also sat on the panel.

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