Cornwell v. Kootenai County Sheriff, 14638

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Idaho
Citation683 P.2d 859,106 Idaho 823
Docket NumberNo. 14638,14638
PartiesDonald E. CORNWELL, SSA 547 50 7052, Claimant-Appellant, v. KOOTENAI COUNTY SHERIFF, Employer-Respondent, and State of Idaho, Department of Employment, Respondent.
Decision Date11 June 1984

Page 859

683 P.2d 859
106 Idaho 823
Donald E. CORNWELL, SSA 547 50 7052, Claimant-Appellant,
v.
KOOTENAI COUNTY SHERIFF, Employer-Respondent,
and
State of Idaho, Department of Employment, Respondent.
No. 14638.
Supreme Court of Idaho.
June 11, 1984.

[106 Idaho 824]

Page 860

Eugene A. Marano, Coeur d'Alene, for appellant.

Michael J. Kane, Coeur d'Alene, for employer-respondent.

Jim Jones, Atty. Gen., Lynn E. Thomas, Sol. Gen., and Larry F. Weeks, Deputy Atty. Gen., Boise, for respondent, Department of Employment.

McFADDEN, Judge Pro Tem.

This is an appeal from the Industrial Commission's denial of claimant's request for unemployment compensation. The commission found that claimant was discharged for misconduct and that claimant was therefore not entitled to receive benefits. We affirm.

The applicable provision of the Employment Security Law is I.C. § 72-1366(e), which states in pertinent part:

"The personal eligibility conditions of a benefit claimant are that--

* * *

* * *

"(e) His unemployment is not due to the fact that he left his employment voluntarily without good cause, or that he was discharged for misconduct in connection with his employment."

We note at the outset the limited nature of this appeal, in that the parties do not dispute the commission's findings of fact. Therefore, the sole issue on appeal is whether the commission correctly applied the above statute to the facts of this case. In summary, the facts are as follows.

Claimant Donald Cornwell worked as a deputy for Kootenai County Sheriff's Office, the employer-respondent herein, from May 1, 1981 to September 18, 1981. He was subject to a one-year probationary period, which had not as yet expired when he was terminated for conduct unbecoming of an officer. The commission determined that the reason for claimant's dismissal was his improper entry into the residence of Mrs. Katie Beebe.

Claimant Cornwell was on duty one day in July 1981, when he was dispatched to pick up a runaway juvenile at a "blue house somewhere at the end of Diamond Drive." Cornwell located the house, but upon knocking and ringing the doorbell, he got no response. He went next door and [106 Idaho 825]

Page 861

inquired of the neighbor, Beebe, who confirmed that the juvenile was at the other house. After apprehending the runaway, Cornwell discovered his police car would not start, and after he asked Beebe for assistance, using "jumper cables," they got the car started.

Claimant returned to Beebe's house on about September 4, 1981 at 1:30 a.m. and noticed Beebe's car keys were in the ignition and the house door was ajar. He knocked, waking Beebe, and requested that she put the car in the garage and lock the house, which she did. They visited a few moments and, following a call from dispatch, he left. Beebe gave him an invitation for a cup of tea, and he returned at 5:30 a.m. and visited with her for a half-hour.

Later, while on patrol, claimant kept an eye on Beebe's house, testifying that he felt protective of her because she was a single woman with children. On September 11, 1981, as he went by her house at about 11:00 p.m., he noticed the lights were on and the garage door open. He tried to close the garage door and could not, so he went to the front door and knocked. No one answered. He went to the side door, which led from the garage into the kitchen, and knocked. Still getting no response, he tried the side door and found it unlocked. He entered the house, and he was about fourteen steps inside and going up the stairs when Beebe's daughter called out that someone was in the house. Mrs. Beebe asked from her bedroom who was there, and Officer Cornwell replied, stating who he was and that the garage door was open and the house unlocked. He then left. Beebe complained to the sheriff's office the next day. Claimant testified that, prior to entering the Beebe home, he neither radioed headquarters, requested a backup officer, nor recorded the stop at the Beebe home in his log book. The evidence indicated there had been no unusual crime in the area. It was not uncommon for garage doors to be left open at night.

The sheriff's department set up surveillance of the Beebe home but did not see Officer Cornwell return to it. The department investigated the incident and dismissed Cornwell from employment, for conduct unbecoming of an officer.

Cornwell filed his claim for unemployment compensation. After a hearing before an appeals examiner of the Department of Employment (D.O.E.), claimant's request for benefits was denied, the examiner ruling that claimant was dismissed for misconduct.

Claimant appealed from the examiner's decision to the Industrial Commission. Following a further hearing before the referee of the Industrial Commission, the referee recommended findings of fact, conclusions of law, and a proposed order affirming the decision of the appeals examiner of the D.O.E.

The Industrial Commission reviewed the record and the referee's proposed findings, conclusions, and order and adopted them as the decision of the commission, from which order this appeal was perfected.

Our review of Industrial Commission decisions is limited to questions of law. Factual findings reached by the commission in unemployment cases will not be overturned by this Court unless they are not supported by substantial and competent evidence. Parker v. St. Maries Plywood, 101 Idaho 415, 614 P.2d 955 (1980); Jenkins v. Agri-Lines Corp., 100 Idaho 549, 602 P.2d 47 (1979); Harris v. Green Tree, Inc., 100 Idaho 227, 596 P.2d 99 (1979); Idaho Const. art. 5, § 9. The determination of whether a claimant's actions were a deliberate disregard of the standards of behavior which the employer has a right to expect from its employees is a factual one. Watts v. Employment Security Agency, 80 Idaho 529, 335 P.2d 533 (1959). In determining whether an employer's actions are tantamount to "misconduct" in the context of the facts of a particular case, we have deferred to the expertise and experience of the Industrial Commission. See, e.g., Parker v. St. Maries Plywood, 101 Idaho 415, 614 P.2d 955 (1980); Jenkins v. Agri-Lines Corp., 100 Idaho 549, 602 P.2d 47 (1979); Watts v. [106 Idaho 826]

Page 862

Employment Security Agency, 80 Idaho 529, 335 P.2d 533 (1959).

In Johns v. S.H. Kress & Co., 78 Idaho 544, 548, 307 P.2d 217, 219 (1957), this Court explained the meaning of misconduct, as used in I.C. § 72-1366(e), as follows:

"While the term 'discharged for misconduct' as used in Sec. 72-1366(f) [now (e) ], I.C. has been variously defined, we think the term should be interpreted as meaning wilful, intentional disregard of the employer's interest; a deliberate violation of the employer's rules; or a disregard of standards of behavior which the employer has a right to expect of his employees."

In this case, the record supports the finding that the employer reasonably expected its officers to refrain from entering private homes uninvited and without cause, and that claimant inexcusably violated that standard of conduct. We affirm the commission's denial of benefits, on the limited basis of the third standard of the Johns definition of misconduct, i.e., that there was substantial, competent evidence of "a disregard of standards of behavior which the employer has the right to expect of his employees." See also Matthews v. Bucyrus-Erie Co., 101 Idaho 657, 619 P.2d 1110 (1980).

The decision of the Industrial Commission is affirmed. Costs to respondents.

DONALDSON, C.J., and BAKES and HUNTLEY, JJ., concur.

BISTLINE, Judge, dissenting.

The decision of the Department's appeals examiner was based on the following set of facts, and the following conclusion:

"The evidence in the record established the claimant had several years experience in law enforcement before becoming employed by the interested employer. During the course of his employment, he made repeated visits to a particular residence. The occupant complained to the employer after the claimant entered the premises uninvited. That action resulted in the claimant's separation, and it is deemed a willful, intentional disregard of the employer's interests or standard of behavior which the employer has the right to expect of an employee. It is therefore concluded misconduct has been established."

R., Vol. 3, p. 2.

The decision of the Commission's referee (in turn adopted by the Commission as its decision) was decidedly more fair to claimant in its Findings of Fact II-VI, the first part of VII, 1 and VIII. The second part of [106 Idaho 827]

Page 863

VII, however, is very offensive to notions of fair play:

"At about the time that the claimant was discharged, the sheriff's office learned that about $200.00 was missing from an arrest in which the claimant was involved. There is no evidence in the record that the claimant took the money. But the claimant was not discharged as a result of the missing money or poor penmanship; he was discharged because he improperly entered Ms. Beebe's house."

The very fact that this statement was made of record demonstrates at the least that the referee was unduly influenced by a factor which had no proper place in his decision. He might have as well stated that there were a number of unsolved rape incidents while claimant was on shift, adding only that there was no evidence in the record that claimant was the culprit. How much the referee's statement influenced the Commissioners, and how much it influences the Justices is beyond accurate appraisal. Because it cannot be said to be inconsequential error, at the least I would vacate the decision of the Commissioners with directions that the Commission itself review the record and afford all of the parties the opportunity to be heard before it.

Although the inclusion of that statement by the referee could not help but prejudice the claimant in the eyes of the Commissioners and the members of this Court, I do not intimate that it was done with that intention....

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