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How to Appeal a Denial of Unemployment Insurance Benefits

When you lose – or are forced to quit – your job in California, unemployment insurance benefits are typically available to you. Employers, however, often wrongfully deny employees these benefits. Sometimes intentionally and sometimes the employers simply do not understand the law.

Unemployment Insurance Code § 1256 provides that, "[a]n individual is disqualified for unemployment compensation benefits if… he or she left his or her most recent work voluntarily without good cause or that he or she has been discharged for misconduct...". The code raises three specific issues: voluntariness, good cause, and misconduct.

Voluntary

An employer does not need to say "you are fired" for an employee to leave a job involuntarily. Instead, the law accounts for a concept known as "constructive termination." This situation exists when an employer creates or allows such a hostile work situation that a reasonable person would not want to continue their employment.

Consider the following example: an employee states to her employer, "[i]f I am not provided my lawful lunch breaks, I will not continue working." The employer responds, "I refuse to provide you a lunch break." In this situation, the employee has merely requested that her employer comply with the law. Because the employer refused, the employee cannot be expected to continue working. Neither party said "I quit" or "you're fired." Yet, it is clear that the employment relationship has come to an end. Here, the employee should be entitled to her benefits.

Good Cause

Good cause exists when the average able-bodied and qualified worker would be reasonably motivated in a similar situation to give up his or her employment, with its wages, to enter the ranks of the compensated unemployed. (Sanchez v. Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board (1984) 36 Cal.3d 575, 585.) This test of "reasonableness" is common in California's legal system. There is no bright-line rule or hard line. An employee should create a written log of the incidents that lead up to his decision to leave his employment. This exercise makes it easier to articulate all the reasons for leaving.

Misconduct

Misconduct is the most commonly misapplied reason for denying an employee unemployment insurance benefits. Employers often believe if an employee makes a few errors or performs poorly, that is tantamount to misconduct. To the contrary, misconduct exists if all of the following elements are present: (1) The claimant owes a material duty to the employer; (2) There is a substantial breach of that duty; (3) The breach is a willful or wanton disregard of that duty; and (4) The breach disregards the employer's interest and injures or tends to injure the employer's interest. (22 Cal Code Regs §§ 1256-30.)

Additionally, an employee's unequivocal refusal to comply with the employer's rule, without more, is not misconduct within the meaning of the statute. Rather, there must be substantial evidence of deliberate, willful, and intentional disobedience. (Robles v. Employment Development Dept. (2012) 207 Cal.App.4th 1029.) In other words, being a poor performer or bad employee is not the same as an employee intending to harm his or her employer.

Understanding these concepts from the beginning can help an employee to prevent a denial of his or her benefits at the early interview stage. At the appeal stage, these legal concepts should be applied to the facts of an employee's individual situation in the appeal letter. It is not necessary for an employee to bring an attorney to the appeal hearing. However, an employee should consider hiring an attorney to draft the appeal letter. This ensures that the employee has a strong understanding of his or her relevant facts. With a solid foundation, the employee is more likely to successfully obtain his or her unemployment insurance benefits.

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