Friday, February 12, 2016

Court Rules that Minnesota Unemployment Judges Have a Duty to Assist Pro Se Claimants with Mental Health Issues in Presenting Evidence

In a recent ruling, the White case, the Minnesota Court of Appeals held that an employee who has been terminated for misconduct caused by mental illness, such as depression, may nevertheless be eligible for Minnesota unemployment benefits.   Notably, the Court also ruled that an unemployment judge has an affirmative duty to help such a claimant present relevant evidence if the claimant is unrepresented by counsel.

The Minnesota unemployment law generally provides that employees terminated through no fault of their own are entitled to benefits.  Individuals who voluntarily quit employment or who are terminated for “misconduct” are, however, ineligible for benefits.  In its ruling, however, the Court of Appeals noted that the unemployment law expressly provides that conduct that might otherwise be disqualifying “misconduct” does not make a claimant ineligible for benefits if the conduct was the consequence of the claimant’s mental illness or impairment.  In addition, an employee’s resignation that results from a serious illness or injury or in connection with a domestic abuse, sexual assault, or stalking situation may, depending on the circumstances, not be a disqualifying resignation.

Based on the mental illness provisions of Minnesota’s employment law, the Minnesota Court of Appeals found in its recent ruling that the claimant was not automatically disqualified from benefits due to alleged misconduct.  In addition, the Court ruled that the unemployment judge had improperly failed to assist the claimant, who was not represented by counsel, in presenting evidence that her conduct was a consequence of mental health issues, namely severe depression.  The Court stated that: “[Unemployment-law judges] have a duty to reasonably assist pro se parties with the presentation of the evidence and the proper development of the record.”  In addition, the Court noted that both parties had given the unemployment judge reason to know that the claimant’s mental health might be a relevant fact.  Accordingly, the Court sent the dispute back to the unemployment judge for further proceedings. 

The remand of the case does not mean that unemployment benefits will necessarily be awarded.  The Court of Appeals ruling recites facts that indicate the employer at issue had given the claimant many chances to correct her conduct (which included sleeping in her office, being absent from her floor for two to three hours, and painting her fingernails at her workstation).  Notably, the Court of Appeals did not criticize the employer at all for its decision to terminate the claimant.  A claimant’s entitlement to unemployment benefits is an entirely separate legal determination from the question of whether the employer had sound and lawful reasons to terminate the employee.  Indeed, the Minnesota Supreme Court has held that, in the unemployment context, the issue is not whether the employer can choose to terminate the employment relationship, but rather whether, now that the employee has been terminated, there should be unemployment compensation.

The unemployment dispute at issue is a strong reminder, however, of how challenging it can be to effectively manage an employee with mental health issues.  Involving strong human resources or legal professionals is often wise.

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