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What Does the Recent Illinois Supreme Court Rule Mean for Unemployment Benefits?

Early in February, the Illinois Supreme Court reached a ruling in the case of Petrovic v. Department of Employment Security. The case involved the provision in the Illinois Unemployment Insurance Act that allows employers to deny unemployment benefits to a former employee if that employee has been terminated due to “misconduct.” The ruling has important employment law ramifications.

While that provision remains in place, the recent court ruling did examine the meaning of the policy. The court case involved a flight attendant, Zlata Petrovic, working for American Airlines who was fired for requesting a complimentary upgrade for a passenger. When she tried to file for unemployment benefits, she was denied because the Airline claimed she had been fired for misconduct.

The misconduct disqualification exists in order to exclude people who intentionally break company policy, consciously try to hurt the company they work for, or act in a way that they know will result in their termination. In other words, the employee has to know that what he or she is doing is against the rules. This was the issue that was addressed by the recent case, because the airlines had no specific policy in place regarding which employees have authorization to offer upgrades to passengers.

However, it has been argued that misconduct should also cover rules that are unstated but known by everyone. Things that everyone should be aware of just by using their logic and common sense. Things like, as the airline claimed, which people are authorized to offer upgrades. This is the “commonsense” loophole, or it was until the ruling in Petrovic v. Department of Employment Security.

The court sided with Petrovic, and ruled that only illegal actions can be considered under the “commonsense” rule, and that all other incidences of misconduct must violate an explicit policy of the company. Therefore, although American Airlines was within their rights to fire Petrovic, there were no legal grounds to deny her unemployment insurance benefits.

What Does This Mean for Unemployment in Illinois?

As a result of the ruling in this case, the definition of misconduct has narrowed. In the future, employers must have evidence of intentional wrongdoing and policy breaking by an employee in order to deny unemployment benefits. The “commonsense” exception may still exist in some form, but it is now much more limited.

This may lead to companies rewriting their policies or changing the ways in which they express their rules to their employees. The important thing will be the employer’s ability to prove that the employee was aware of all policies, written, unwritten and commonsense, before he or she broke them.

The employment lawyers of Pluymert, MacDonald, Hargrove & Lee, Ltd. represent Illinois employers and employees for discrimination at work, wage and hour laws and other employment law matters throughout the greater Chicagoland area at our offices in Des Plaines and Hoffman Estates.

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