Friday, October 05, 2007

UC - willful misconduct - single standard

Dept. of Corrections v. UCBR - Pa. Supreme Court - October 4, 2007

The court reversed a Commonwealth Court decision denying benefits to a prison guard who did not report rumors of a planned attack on an inmate and did not not intervene when he heard the inmate being beaten, because of the officer's fear of reprisals and fear for his own safety. The lower court said that such fears did not constitute good cause for his actions. The court said that its conscience was shocked by the Board's conclusion "that a corrections officer who refuses to report a threat of violence against an inmate and refuses to render aid to an inmate being beaten could use fear for his own personal safety as good cause justification for his refusal to render aid....We can do nothing but express our outrage" that the DOC's Office of Professional Responsibility was aware of and condoned claimant's conduct and that of others in his situation.

The Supreme Court reversed and remanded for reconsideration in light of its decisions in Navickas v. UCBR, 787 A.2d 284 (Pa. 2001) and Grieb v. UCBR, 827 A.2d 422 (Pa. 2003), holding that the UC Act "sets for a single governing standard of willful misconduct and rejecting the idea that a higher standard may apply based upon the type or nature of the employment involved."

The Commonwealth Court decision is reported at 919 A/2d 316 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2007) The lower court cited it decision in Williams v. UCBR, 648 A.2d 1321 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1994), the court noted its prior holdings that a "corrections officer, like law enforcement officials, occupy positions of great responsibility and trust, and thus, must adhere to demanding standards, which are higher than those applied to many other professions."

A concurring opinion in the lower court noted that the statement was in direct conflict with the Supreme Court's decision in Navickas v. UCBR, 778 A.2d 284, 290-1 (Pa. 2001), where the court rejected a higher standard of care for a health care worker, stating that that is a "question...of policy...not posed by the Unemployment Compensation Law we are called upon to construe. The Act sets for a single governing standard of willful misconduct, one that does not draw distinctions based upon the type or nature of the employee involved."