271 S.W.3d 594 (Mo. 2008), SC 89239, Difatta-Wheaton v. Dolphin Capital Corp.

Docket Nº:SC 89239.
Citation:271 S.W.3d 594
Party Name:Amy DIFATTA-WHEATON, Appellant, v. DOLPHIN CAPITAL CORPORATION, Defendant, Division of Employment Security, Respondent.
Case Date:December 16, 2008
Court:Supreme Court of Missouri

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271 S.W.3d 594 (Mo. 2008)




Division of Employment Security, Respondent.

No. SC 89239.

Supreme Court of Missouri, En Banc.

December 16, 2008

Susan Ford Robertson, Columbia, for Appellant.

Matthew W. Murphy, Marilyn Green, Jefferson City, for Respondent.


When Amy Difatta-Wheaton (" Claimant" ) 1 was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she was required to miss work to receive the emergency medical treatment she needed to save her life. This disease was

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certainly not her fault, nor a voluntary condition that she chose. Yet, she was disqualified by the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission (" Commission" ) from receiving certain unemployment benefits under the Missouri employment security statute, section 288.050.1(1), RSMo Supp.2007.2 She seeks review of the Commission's decision.

This Court granted transfer after the court of appeals reversed the Commission's decision. Mo. Const. art. V, sec. 10. Applying the law to the facts in this case, Claimant's absence from work was not voluntary. As such, this Court reverses the Commission's decision and remands for entry of an order consistent with this holding.

I. Background

Claimant was employed by Dolphin Capital Corporation (" Company" ) as a sales representative. In 2006, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Pursuant to a doctor's statement that she could not work due to excessive bleeding, Company granted her medical leave between May 24 and May 29, 2006. She was due to return to work at 8 a.m. May 29. But, the evening before this return date, she suffered a medical emergency related to her ovarian cancer. At 7:30 a.m. May 29, she left a message with her supervisor stating that she was unable to come to work that day due to cancer complications. In the message, she also stated that she would fax over a statement from her doctor, whom she would visit later that day.

Claimant testified that the doctor faxed a statement on May 29, and that her friend also delivered a copy of the doctor's statement to Company. After she did not hear back from her supervisor, she stated that she sent another copy of the excuse to Company via her boyfriend.3 A letter from Company dated June 5 stated that she had voluntarily resigned because of unexcused absences between May 29 and June 5. She filed for unemployment benefits, and a deputy for the Division of Employment Security (" DES" ) found that she had voluntarily quit her employment and denied her benefits. The DES appeals tribunal and the Commission affirmed this decision.

The Commission credited Claimant's testimony by adopting the appeals tribunal's findings of fact, which stated: " The physician's office faxed a document to the employer prescribing the claimant off work until July 29, 2006." The findings also included that Claimant's friend had dropped off a copy of the doctor's statement.

II. Standard of Review

In reviewing the Commission's decision, this Court is not bound by the Commission's conclusions of law or its application of the law to the facts. See section 288.210, RSMo 2000; Div. of Employment Sec. v. Taney County Dist. R-III, 922 S.W.2d 391, 393 (Mo. banc 1996). Where, as is the case here, there is no factual dispute, and the issue is the construction and application of a statute, the case presents an issue of law that this Court reviews de novo. Id.

III. Analysis

The question before this Court is whether Claimant's absence from work, when stemming from complications from ovarian cancer and accompanied by notice to her employer, establishes that she " left work voluntarily" under the terms of section

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288.050.1(1). If, as DES argues, Claimant's absence was voluntary, she is not entitled to certain unemployment benefits.

A. Applicable statutes and previous Missouri case law

The general public policy statement in Missouri's employment security law, chapter 288, must first be considered. Section 288.020, RSMo 2000,4 provides:

Public policy declared-construction of law:

1. As a guide to the interpretation and application of this law, the public policy of this state is declared to be as follows: Economic insecurity due to unemployment is a serious menace to health, morals, and welfare of the people of this state resulting in a public calamity. The legislature, therefore, declares that in its considered judgment the public good and the general welfare of the citizens of this state require the enactment of this measure, under the police powers of the state, for compulsory setting aside of unemployment reserves to be used for the benefit of...

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