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Violating Employment Policies Outside the Workplace Can Result in Termination for Misconduct

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Terminated employees qualify for unemployment benefits when they are unemployed without fault on their part.  Recently the Virginia Court of Appeals determined that fault can include conduct that occurs outside of the workplace.

The Case

The case is Francis v. VEC & Wal-Mart Associates, Inc.  Francis was employed by Wal-Mart from 6/2006 through 4/2008.  During her time with Wal-Mart she had no workplace discipline issues.  Outside of work she was charged with felony welfare fraud.  Even though she was not required to do so, Francis disclosed the charges to her superiors.  Her superiors rewarded her openness by suspending Francis and eventually forcing her to resign in lieu of termination.

Wal-Mart’s justification for suspending and asking her to resign was that Francis’ act of felony welfare fraud violated the Wal-Mart “code of ethics”.  Francis argued that the misconduct should not disqualify her because the acts were in no way connected to her work and took place outside of the workplace. 

The Court of Appeals disagreed with Francis.  The Court found that misconduct occurs when the employee commits (1) a deliberate violation of a company rule or (2) an action or omission of such a nature or so recurrent as to manifest a willful disregard of the employer’s interests and the duties and obligations the employee owes the employer.  Francis (a cashier) was in a position of trust at work.  Her welfare fraud put in her in a position of distrust and showed a willful disregard for Wal-Mart’s interests and the duties and obligations she owed her employer.

Practice Pointers

Remember that Virginia follows the “employment at-will” doctrine, which means that the employment relationship can be ended by employee or employer for almost any reason with reasonable notice.   Here, the employee resigned.  Had she been terminated, it still would have been acceptable.

For unemployment benefits, however, the analysis changes slightly.  Terminated employees qualify for unemployment benefits as long as they are not unemployed due to their own fault.  The Francis case shows that fault can include an employee’s actions that take place outside of the workplace.