Illinois Supreme Court rules American Airlines employee eligible for unemployment benefits
By Alyssa M. Reiter, Williams Montgomery & John Ltd.
This case, involving a denial of unemployment insurance benefits based upon employee misconduct, provided an opportunity for the Court to clarify the type of misconduct required and the proof necessary to justify such denial.
Petrovic applied for unemployment insurance benefits after she was terminated by American Airlines for misconduct at work. Petrovic had requested that the catering department deliver champagne to a customer and had asked a flight attendant to upgrade that passenger to first class.
The Department of Employment Security denied the request for unemployment benefits and the Board of Review affirmed that determination. Following further review, the case proceeded to the Supreme Court.
Because the applicable statute required that an employee’s violation be “deliberate and willful,” it necessarily required evidence that the employee was aware that her conduct was prohibited. In this case, there was no evidence in the record of a reasonable American Airlines rule or policy prohibiting Petrovic’s conduct. The employer’s sole witness at the administrative hearing testified only that “policies and procedures were not followed” but did not identify any specific rule or policy. Further, statements contained within the employer’s written protest were not legally competent evidence. The protest was merely a pleading and any facts alleged within the protest had to be substantiated with competent evidence.
The Appellate Court had previously held in certain unemployment cases that the existence of a specific rule or policy need not be proven where there is a “commonsense realization that certain conduct intentionally and substantially disregards an employer’s interests.” The Supreme Court held that such judicially created exception could not be reconciled with the plain language of the statute which requires a deliberate violation. The Court carved out only a narrow exception for conduct that is illegal or constitutes a prima facie intentional tort.