February 4, 2009 in Business

Court: Woman not required to repay benefits

Previous ruling for employer overturned
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Stephanie Monroe learned this week she doesn’t have to repay Washington state about $7,000 in unemployment benefits.

The Spokane worker’s case in a recent state appeals court ruling came after a lengthy legal battle after her former boss tried to disqualify her from receiving benefits. The boss said she was fired for misconduct, which under state law would mean she deserves no jobless benefits.

The appellate court’s Division Three on Tuesday ruled Monroe had, in fact, not been fired for misconduct but because she lacked the skills to perform her duties.

Now 33, Monroe had worked as a legal assistant for Spokane attorney Mark Kamitomo, whose business was named The Markam Group.

She was hired in June 2004 and let go in July 2006.

“I made mistakes, I know that, but it wasn’t like I was trying to hurt his business,” said Monroe, who now works at Home Depot in Spokane.

Kamitomo opposed her receiving benefits, saying she had made repeated errors in her work. But the state in its initial review of the matter allowed her to receive about $7,000 in benefits, until Monroe started a new job.

In 2007 Kamitomo appealed that decision to Spokane County Superior Court and won a ruling from Judge Sam Cozza, denying Monroe the benefits and ordering her to repay the money.

Washington’s Employment Security Department and Monroe then took the matter to the Court of Appeals. Kamitomo again argued state law says misconduct can happen when a worker acts in a “willful or wanton disregard of the rights, title and interests of the employer.” That misconduct doesn’t have to be intentional negligence, he told the court.

As one example, Kamitomo cited Monroe’s failure to serve an opposing party’s attorney with court papers as requested.

But this week the appeals court cited the earlier benefits decision, agreeing Monroe’s behavior “was not malicious. The findings show that she made mistakes” and that “mere incompetence does not constitute statutory misconduct.”

The state sees frequent challenges by employers over whether employees qualify for unemployment benefits. In general a worker dismissed for misconduct is not eligible for benefits, said Laurie Powers, a Spokane attorney working for the nonprofit advocacy group The Unemployment Law Project.

A growing number of employers are challenging unemployment claims as the state’s jobless rolls swell during the recession.

Data collected by the nonprofit group show that nearly half the legal battles it handles involve employers challenging workers by saying misconduct had occurred. In most cases, the initial decision for or against benefits settles the matter.

The Monroe challenge, however, was more prolonged than most. Not only did Kamitomo take the case to a state court, but then the state brought the decision to the Court of Appeals.

Powers added that in many of those challenges, the key battle is over the meaning of misconduct.

Contacted after the ruling, Monroe said, “I was just ready to move on and start a new job. I was very surprised that it came to all this (legal dispute).”

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