Czajka v. Department of Employment Sec., 1-07-1646.

Decision Date05 December 2008
Docket NumberNo. 1-07-1646.,1-07-1646.
Citation901 N.E.2d 436,387 Ill. App. 3d 168
PartiesCarmen T. CZAJKA, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. THE DEPARTMENT OF EMPLOYMENT SECURITY, Board of Review, and Saint Liborius School, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtUnited States Appellate Court of Illinois

Alonzo Rivas, M. Garrett Hohimer, and Marisel A. Hernandez of Jacobs, Burns, Orlove, Stanton & Hernandez, of Chicago, for Appellant.

Lisa Madigan, Attorney General, Michael A. Scodro, Solicitor General, State of Illinois, (Timothy K. McPike, Assistant Attorney General), for Appellee.

Justice TOOMIN delivered the opinion of the court:

Plaintiff, Carmen T. Czajka, appeals from an order of the circuit court affirming the decision of the Board of Review of the Illinois Department of Employment Security (the Board), which denied Czajka's claim for unemployment compensation benefits. On appeal, Czajka contends that (1) the Board's conclusion that Czajka committed statutory misconduct was against the manifest weight of the evidence; and (2) the Board's denial of benefits violated Czajka's first amendment right to the free exercise of her religion. For the reasons that follow, we reverse and remand.

BACKGROUND

Czajka was employed as a sacristan at the Saint Liborius School, from October 1992 through December 2, 2005, earning $6 an hour. Czajka, who was 63 years old at the time of her termination, was responsible for keeping the church and sacristy clean. She was not part of the school administration. Czajka's termination stemmed from her objections to a program that was mandated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Joliet wherein children would view a movie, "Talking About Touching," and participate in discussions concerning inappropriate physical contact. On December 2, 2005, Reverend Treyes, pastor of Saint Liborius, fired Czajka because of her blatant insubordination.

Following termination, Czajka sought unemployment compensation benefits before the local office of the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES). The claims adjudicator's initial findings reflect that Czajka was discharged because "she did not agree with the church." On December 22, 2005, the adjudicator determined that Czajka was eligible for benefits because the "action which resulted in her discharge was not deliberate or willful." Saint Liborius filed a timely protest to the adjudicator's decision and sought further review before the IDES Appeals Division.

On April 4, 2006, the matter proceeded to a referee's hearing before an administrative law judge. The parties appeared by telephone and presented the following relevant testimony. Reverend Treyes initially testified concerning the "Talking About Touching" program mandated by the diocese. In implementing the program, the school notified the parents of the film showing to be followed by classroom discussions attended by students of the school and the religious education program. The film was scheduled to be shown November 10, 2005, and during a casual lunch several days prior to the showing Czajka voiced her disagreement with the program.

On November 14, the principal and director of the religious education program informed Reverend Treyes that a school parent was putting flyers in opposition to the program on cars at the Crete campus. He was also informed of rumors that individuals opposing the program had threatened to alert the media to what was labeled as pornographic material for the children. In turn, the reverend called Czajka to his office to ask her whether she knew anything about the parent concerns over the Diocese's program. During the ensuing discussion, Czajka repeatedly stated that she was against the program and that she was telling school parents and parish families that they should not support it. In turn, Reverend Treyes reminded Czajka that she should make a distinction between her personal opinion and openly campaigning against the program; that she was an employee of the parish and was expected to support its programs or policies. According to Reverend Treyes, Czajka refused "to agree with me" and told him she would "lay [down] her life for what she believes in." She found the program totally wrong, "calling it pornography." Czajka understood that Reverend Treyes was in earnest in warning her that what she was doing was not in accord with her position as an employee of the parish. She acknowledged that if she campaigned openly against the program "that would amount to probably resigning as a sacristan."

Czajka continued to work up to her vacation toward the end of November. Reverend Treyes had no further conversations with Czajka nor did he receive any additional reports of her disagreement with the program. Czajka was terminated on December 2, 2005, following her return from vacation.

In her testimony, Czajka acknowledged her disagreement with the program, questioning whether it actually had been mandated by Bishop Schlarman. As an educator of 10 to 11 years, Czajka did not think it was proper to put the materials out until "they really looked into it." She admitted that she called one person, her cousin's daughter, and asked her to call other parents to remind them that they could opt out of the program. She further explained:

"My whole thing was to get the parents, call them and tell them go check with the principal, see what this is before you let your children go through. I had not an open campaign outside. The person that was out there passing out literature, she did it on her own."

It was uncontroverted that Czajka's call was made before Reverend Treyes called her to his office.

Although Czajka acknowledged that as a sacristan she had nothing to do with school policies, she denied that she had campaigned openly against the program.

"I had my work as a sacristan. I could not be outside campaigning for nothing. If they wanted to, they could. But I didn't have any time to do that because I was going on vacation. I had to leave the church clean."

She agreed that during the meeting with Reverend Treyes, she told him that she "would basically lay down her life to make sure that the program didn't get shown to the students."

The referee's decision reversing the adjudicator's award was mailed the following day. Among his findings of fact, the administrative law judge noted:

"The employer asserts that the claimant objected to a program that was mandated by the diocese of Joliet wherein, children would view a video and participate in discussions concerning inappropriate touching. The claimant objected to the program and the viewing of the video. The claimant voiced her concerns to the pastor. The claimant then proceeded to implement a `grass roots' effort to abort the viewing of the video. The claimant's actions were responsible for the placing of leaflets on the cars at services calling [for] the banning of the program. The claimant's [sic] admits her actions and conduct in this regard and believes that the video bordered on pornography."

The referee likewise observed that Czajka's objection to the program and attendant video was instrumental in subverting the program of the employer. He therefore concluded:

"[T]he claimant's personal opinion transcended her authority. The claimant took substantial steps to thwart the program. It is well settled that in all cases where a worker comes in contact with the employer's customers in the course of her work, she is under a duty to conduct herself in a manner so as not to injure the employer's interest. An employee who is impudent, discourteous, and/or argumentative when serving the employer's patrons violates and breaches a duty and the resulting discharge will be considered misconduct."

The referee determined that Czajka's actions were against the best interest of the employer and that she was discharged for misconduct connected with her work. Accordingly, Czajka was disqualified for unemployment compensation benefits.

Czajka appealed the referee's decision to the Board of Review. In its decision, the Board essentially adopted and mirrored the factual findings and legal reasoning of the referee. Moreover, the Board highlighted certain findings relative to the dispositive November 10 meeting between Czajka and Reverend Treyes:

"At this meeting, the pastor told her that she was entitled to her personal opinion, but as an employee of the Parish, she was expected to support the policy of the Parish. The claimant stated that she believed the program was pornography and advised that: `she would lay down her life to make sure that the program did not get shown.' Even after this discussion, the claimant orchestrated a campaign to discredit the program and have it boycotted by parents. Subsequently, some parents picketed the program, and placed flyers on cars."

The Board further found:

"The claimant told the pastor that she understood that if she took action against the program she would have to leave her employment. Nonetheless, she continued to actively challenge a program mandated by the parish which effectively undermined the activities of her employer. The claimant's activities were not protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution. See Garcetti et al. v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410, 126 S.Ct. 1951, 164 L.Ed.2d 689 (May 30, 2006). We find the claimant's refusal to act in accordance with the employer's policies was subordination constituting misconduct under Section 602A of the Act."

Accordingly, the Board likewise concluded that Czajka was discharged for misconduct connected with work and was subject to a disqualification of benefits under section 602(A) of the Illinois Unemployment Insurance Act. (Act) (820 ILCS 405/602(A) (West 2004)). In turn, Czajka filed the instant action seeking administrative review of the Board's decision. The circuit court affirmed the decision of the Board and Czajka now appeals.

ANALYSIS

On appeal from a decision denying unemployment compensation benefits, the duty of the appellate court is to...

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