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Paratransit, Inc v. Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board

May 31, 2012

PARATRANSIT, INC., PLAINTIFF AND RESPONDENT,
v.
UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE APPEALS BOARD, DEFENDANT; CRAIG MEDEIROS, REAL PARTY IN INTEREST AND APPELLANT.



(Super. Ct. No. 34-2009-80000249)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hull , J.

Paratransit v. Unemploy. Ins. Appeals Bd.

CA3

NOT TO BE PUBLISHED

California Rules of Court, rule 8.1115(a), prohibits courts and parties from citing or relying on opinions not certified for publication or ordered published, except as specified by rule 8.1115(b). This opinion has not been certified for publication or ordered published for purposes of rule 8.1115.

Unemployment Insurance Code section 1256 (section 1256) disqualifies an employee from receiving unemployment compensation benefits if he or she has been discharged for misconduct. Misconduct within the meaning of section 1256 involves a willful or wanton disregard of an employer's interests or such carelessness or negligence as to manifest equal culpability. It does not include, among other things, good faith errors in judgment. (Amador v. Unemployment Ins. Appeals Bd. (1984) 35 Cal.3d 671, 678 (Amador).)

Real party in interest Craig Medeiros (Claimant) appeals from a judgment of the trial court granting a writ of administrative mandamus to his former employer, petitioner Paratransit, Inc. (Employer), on Claimant's claim for unemployment insurance benefits. Claimant had been terminated by Employer for refusing to sign a disciplinary memorandum in connection with a prior incident of misconduct. Respondent Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board (Board) determined Claimant's refusal to sign the memorandum was, at most, a good faith error in judgment that did not disqualify him from receiving unemployment benefits. The trial court disagreed and directed the Board to set aside its decision and to enter a new one finding Claimant disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits. We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

Employer is a private, nonprofit corporation engaged in the business of providing transportation services for the elderly and disabled. Prior to his termination, Claimant had been employed by Employer as a driver for approximately six years.

As a condition of his employment, Claimant was required to join a union. The union was party to a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with Employer that included the following provision: "The Employer shall provide a Vehicle Operator with copies of complimentary letters received regarding his or her job performance and with copies of disciplinary notices, including verbal warnings that have been put in writing. All disciplinary notices must be signed by a Vehicle Operator when presented to him or her provided that the notice states that by signing, the Vehicle Operator is only acknowledging receipt of said notice and is not admitting to any fault or to the truth of any statement in the notice."

In February 2008, a passenger lodged a complaint against Claimant with Employer. Employer's human resources manager investigated the matter and concluded the alleged misconduct had occurred. This was not the first incident of alleged misconduct involving Claimant. On his application for employment in 2002, Claimant indicated he had not been convicted of any offenses. After Claimant was hired, a fingerprint search with the Department of Justice revealed a prior conviction. Claimant was terminated, but that termination was later rescinded based on Claimant's representations that the conviction arose from a domestic dispute. In September 2004, Claimant was issued a memorandum of discipline in connection with another incident.

On May 2, 2008, Claimant was called into a meeting with Employer's human resources manager and its director of administrative services and told he was being disciplined for the February 2008 incident. Claimant disagreed the incident had occurred as alleged, requested that a union representative be present at the meeting, and indicated he was tired from having just finished a full day of work and was confused because the others at the meeting "had additionally brought up matters that had occurred when he had been hired six years earlier." Claimant was informed he was not entitled to union representation because the meeting did not involve discussions that could lead to discipline but was merely to inform him of discipline that had already been determined.

Employer's representatives had previously prepared a memorandum advising Claimant that he was being assessed discipline for the February 2008 incident, including suspension for two days without pay. They gave the memorandum to Claimant, explained its substance, and asked him to sign it. Below the signature line, the document read: "Employee Signature as to Receipt."

Claimant refused to sign the memo because he believed he should not sign anything without a union representative present. The union president had previously provided Claimant a card advising him "not to sign anything without a union representative which could in any way lead to him being disciplined because once a document was signed the employer could use it as an admission of guilt and the union would not be able to defend him."

When Claimant was given the disciplinary memorandum in 2004, he was also told to sign it. That document read under the signature line, "'Employee Signature (as to receipt only).'" Claimant was told if he refused to sign the memo he would be terminated. Claimant signed that document "'so [he] wouldn't get fired.'"

In the May 2, 2008, meeting, Employer's representatives informed Claimant the CBA required him to sign the disciplinary memorandum and that, if he did not, this would be treated as insubordination and his employment would be terminated. Claimant complained that, if he signed the document, he would be admitting the truth of what was stated in it. The representatives assured Claimant his signature would only signify receipt of the document. Claimant stated he had been informed by the union president not to sign anything and he was not going to sign anything. Claimant did not believe he would be fired for failing to sign the memorandum. He thought instead that the meeting would be rescheduled to give him an opportunity to consult with the union. He also believed Employer's representations that his signature would not be an admission of anything were lies. Claimant departed the meeting without signing the disciplinary memorandum and without asking that the meeting be rescheduled. However, he did indicate he would be consulting with the union. Claimant was thereafter informed his employment had been terminated.

Claimant applied for unemployment insurance benefits, but the Employment Development Department (EDD) denied his request. Claimant appealed, but an administrative law judge (ALJ) upheld EDD's decision. After conducting an evidentiary hearing at which both Claimant and the two Employer supervisors testified, the ALJ concluded Claimant's "deliberate disobedience of a reasonable and lawful directive of the employer, to sign the memorandum notifying him of disciplinary action, where obedience was not impossible or unlawful and did not impose new or additional burdens upon [him], constituted misconduct . . . ." The ALJ further concluded that, because Claimant had been terminated for misconduct, he was disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits.

Claimant appealed to the Board, and the Board reversed. The Board concluded: "In this case, the claimant was compelled to meet with the employer and his request for union representation was denied despite the fact that the discussion led to a threat of and actual termination. Furthermore, the employer's disciplinary form appears to be in noncompliance with the language of its own rules in that there is no written notice on the form that, by signing, the employer [sic] is not admitting to any fault in the conduct resulting in discipline. Give[n] the admonition given to claimant by the union president not to sign, the lack of clarifying language near the signature line, and the denial of the claimant's request for union representation, we find that the claimant's failure to sign at the moment was, at most, a simple mistake or an instance of poor judgment."

Following the Board's decision, Employer filed the instant petition for writ of administrative mandamus. The trial court granted the petition, concluding Claimant deliberately disobeyed a lawful and reasonable directive of his employer and this amounted to misconduct rather than a good faith error in judgment. The court explained Claimant was not entitled to union representation at the meeting because it was not investigatory in nature. As for Claimant's reliance on advice of the union president, the court indicated it did not believe the president "actually told [Claimant] not to sign anything without first obtaining union representation." The court further concluded that, even if the president did, Claimant could not in good faith have relied on such incorrect advice under the circumstances of this case.

Regarding the language of the disciplinary memorandum, the court determined this did not violate the CBA. The court explained the CBA did not require the exact language indicated therein and, while the CBA required both a statement that the signature is only an acknowledgement of receipt and a statement that the employee is not admitting guilt, the court concluded "these 'two requirements' are just different sides of the same coin." The court concluded "the memorandum was sufficiently clear that it was reasonable for [Employer] to demand that [Claimant] sign." Furthermore, even if it was not sufficiently clear, "[Employer] expressly advised [Claimant] that he was not entitled to a union representative and that signing the memorandum was merely an acknowledgement of receipt and not an admission of the truth of the statements."

The court did agree the discrepancies between the language of the memorandum and the language of the CBA must be considered in determining whether Claimant's refusal to sign was a good faith error in judgment. Nevertheless, the court concluded Claimant deliberately disobeyed a lawful and reasonable instruction of his employer and, under the totality of the circumstances, this was misconduct rather than a good faith error in judgment.

DISCUSSION

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