Kehl v. Board of Review of Indus. Com'n of Utah, Dept. of Employment Sec.

Decision Date23 May 1985
Docket NumberNo. 20193,20193
PartiesBarbara K. KEHL, Plaintiff, v. BOARD OF REVIEW OF the INDUSTRIAL COMMISSION OF UTAH, DEPARTMENT OF EMPLOYMENT SECURITY, Defendant.
CourtUtah Supreme Court

Scott W. Reed, Salt Lake City, for appellant.

K. Allan Zabel, Mike Larsen (Hercules), Carl N. Erickson (Hercules), Salt Lake City, for respondent.

DURHAM, Justice:

Barbara K. Kehl ("the petitioner") seeks review and reversal of a decision by the Board of Review of the Industrial Commission of Utah, Department of Employment Security ("the Board of Review"), affirming an administrative law judge's decision denying her unemployment insurance benefits. The ground for denial was that the petitioner had been discharged for "just cause" within the meaning of U.C.A., 1953, § 35-4-5(b)(1) (Supp.1983). 1 We affirm the Board of Review's decision.

The petitioner was employed as a forklift operator with Hercules, Inc. ("the employer"), from August 11, 1978, to April 24, 1984, when she was discharged for violating a company safety rule. The petitioner's duties included transporting rocket motors containing up to 10,000 pounds of explosives between various locations on the employer's premises. In transporting these motors, the petitioner was required to cross a segment of Kennecott Copper Company's ("Kennecott") railroad tracks. The employer's safety rules required adherence to the following procedures for crossing the tracks: (1) everyone moving explosives across Kennecott's tracks must be accompanied by an escort in a separate vehicle; (2) the forklift carrying the motor must stop at a marker 150 feet away from the tracks; (3) the escort must leave the escort vehicle, walk to a Kennecott telephone located near the tracks, and telephone the Kennecott dispatcher for clearance to cross the tracks; and (4) upon receiving clearance from the Kennecott dispatcher, the escort must personally determine that the tracks are clear and then signal the forklift to cross. The procedure required contacting the Kennecott dispatcher because it was not unusual for Kennecott to have as many as five trains or trolleys following one another down the track, and the dispatcher was the only person familiar with the train schedules and the locations of trains on the tracks. The petitioner was discharged for violating this safety procedure.

When she was first hired to operate the forklift, the petitioner signed a three-part card indicating that she was aware of and understood the procedure described above. Part one was signed after she read the rules, part two was signed after she saw the procedure performed, and part three was signed after she performed the procedure. Until the incident resulting in her discharge, the petitioner had never violated this rule.

She was involved in an accident about two months prior to her discharge in which the forklift she was operating struck and damaged one of her employer's buildings. She was issued a written warning and was verbally instructed that any further violation could result in her discharge. The petitioner refused to sign the accident report on this first incident because she felt it misrepresented what had happened.

The incident resulting in the petitioner's discharge occurred on April 20, 1984. On that day, the petitioner was transporting a motor containing explosives across Kennecott's tracks. Upon approaching the tracks, the petitioner observed a train about one mile away that had passed the crossing several minutes earlier. Instead of stopping, she merely slowed down and proceeded across the tracks.

Upon learning of this incident, the employer suspended the petitioner pending consultation with the vice president and general plant manager. The employer's representatives met with the petitioner and reviewed her familiarity with the area where the infraction had occurred, her knowledge of the procedure governing transportation of explosives, and any extenuating circumstances. After considering the magnitude of the violation, the potential for bodily injury and property damage, and the petitioner's awareness of the safety rules as demonstrated by the signed three-part card and proper compliance in the past, the employer discharged the petitioner on April 24, 1984, for what it considered a major violation of its safety rules.

The Department of Employment Security denied the petitioner's initial claim for benefits because she had knowingly violated a safety rule regarding forklift operations. In a hearing before the administrative law judge, the petitioner attributed the violation to a snowstorm and faulty exhaust equipment. She contended that the combination of keeping the cab closed because of the storm and the exhaust fumes in the cab from the faulty equipment affected her judgment and caused her to violate the rule. The administrative law judge discounted this, however, because the petitioner had not mentioned this contention during a meeting with her employer and an Equal Employment Opportunity representative, even though she had had an opportunity to do so.

The administrative law judge held that the petitioner was discharged for just cause; thus, she was ineligible for unemployment benefits under U.C.A., 1953, § 35-4-5(b)(1) (Supp.1983). The Board of Review affirmed the administrative law judge's decision, whereupon the petitioner filed an appeal to this Court pursuant to U.C.A., 1953, § 35-4-10(i) (Supp.1983). The only issue on appeal is whether the facts in this case are sufficient to warrant a decision that the petitioner was discharged for just cause.

I. Standards Applied in Other Jurisdictions with Just Cause Provisions

This case is the first in which we have been asked to apply the just cause provision of our statute. Since the question is one of first impression for this Court, we examine for guidance the decisions of other jurisdictions construing similar statutory language. In Indiana, for example, an employee is disqualified from receiving unemployment compensation if discharged for just cause. Ind.Code Ann. § 22-4-15-1(b) (Burns Supp.1983). The Indiana Code defines "discharge for just cause" as follows:

(e) "Discharge for just cause" as used in this section is defined to include but not be limited to:

....

(2) Knowing violation of a reasonable and uniformly enforced rule of an employer;

....

(7) Conduct endangering safety of self or coworkers;

(8) [A]ny breach of duty in connection with work which is reasonably owed an employer by an employee.

Ind.Code Ann. § 22-4-15-1(e) (Burns Supp.1983). The Indiana Court of Appeals has interpreted just cause as follows: " '[J]ust cause,' as used in the Employment Security Act, means failure or volition, and does not mean something blame worthy, culpable, or worthy of censure." Wakshlag v. Review Board of the Indiana Employment Security Division, Ind.App., 413 N.E.2d 1078, 1082 (1980).

Ohio also disqualifies unemployment compensation claimants who are discharged for just cause. In Harp v. Administrator, Bureau of Unemployment Compensation, 12 Ohio Misc. 34, 37, 230 N.E.2d 376, 379 (Ct. C.P. Hamilton County 1967), the Ohio Court of Common Pleas said, " '[J]ust cause' means that if an impartial person examined all the facts and circumstances of the case, he would conclude that the discharge was merited." (Emphasis in original.) That case also involved an employee who was discharged for violation of a company rule. Although the court found that the employee was not discharged for just cause within the meaning of the statute, it did so because it found that the employer did not enforce the rule fairly.

Along with Indiana and Ohio, Delaware disqualifies unemployment compensation claimants who are discharged for just cause. According to the Delaware Superior Court, denial of benefits is appropriate where substandard performance is the result of a willful act in violation of the employer's interests and is not the result of mere inefficiency or inadvertence. Starkey v. Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board, Del.Super.Ct., 340 A.2d 165, 166-67 (1975). The claimant in that case was discharged from his position as a grounds keeper because he was slow in performing his duties and spent much of his time talking to people on the street. The court found this sufficient to support a finding of discharge for just cause because the substandard performance was intended and was in violation of the employer's interests. Id. at 167.

II. Standard for Determining Just Cause Under the Department of Employment Security's Proposed Rules and Regulations

The administrative law judge in this case determined that the petitioner had been discharged for just cause by applying the Department of Employment Security's Proposed Rules and Regulations. In reviewing such a determination, this Court adheres to the following standard of review, enunciated in Utah Department of Administrative Services v. Public Service Commission, Utah, 658 P.2d 601 (1983):

An agency's interpretation of key provisions of the statute it is empowered to administer is often inseparable from its application of the rules of law to the basic facts.... In reviewing decisions such as these, a court should afford great deference to the technical expertise or more extensive experience of the responsible agency....

The degree of deference extended to the decisions of the [Public Service] Commission on these intermediate types of issues [those involving statutory interpretations described above] has been given various expression, but all are variations of the idea that the Commission's decisions must fall within the limits of reasonableness or rationality.

Id. at 610. Thus, unless the administrative law...

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