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Williams v. Ohio Department of Job & Family Services

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Tenth District

September 24, 2013

Michael Williams, Appellant-Appellant,
Ohio Department of Job & Family Services et al., Appellees-Appellees.

APPEAL from the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas (C.P.C. No. 12CV-14486).

Saia & Piatt, Inc., and Lisa A. Wafer, for appellant.

Michael DeWine, Attorney General, and Yvonne Tertel, for appellee Ohio Department of Job & Family Services.

Fisher & Phillips LLP, Daniel P. O'Brien, James D. Kurek, and Nicole H. Farley, for appellee Bob Caldwell Dodge Country, Inc.



(¶ 1} Michael Williams, appellant, has filed an appeal from the judgment of the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas, in which the court affirmed the decision of the Unemployment Compensation Review Commission ("commission"), a division of the Ohio Department of Job & Family Services ("ODJFS"), appellee. In its decision, the commission found appellant was not entitled to receive unemployment benefits.

(¶ 2} The underlying facts will be discussed in more detail in our discussion of the assignments of error. On March 12, 2012, appellant was terminated from his position as a sales associate with Bob Caldwell Dodge Country, Inc. ("Caldwell"), appellee. The termination was based upon three grounds: (1) lying to Caldwell regarding the reason he requested leave on March 6 and 9, 2012, which Caldwell claimed appellant said was to care for a sick uncle but was actually to go on a trip to Las Vegas, (2) insubordination, which arose from appellant's failure to leave the building upon the request of Jon Eplin, the finance manager, after a March 10, 2012 confrontation with Eplin regarding the March 6 and 9, 2012 leave, and (3) appellant's failure to properly maintain his "green book, " which is a book that sales associates use to log their sales contacts.

(¶ 3} On April 5, 2012, appellant filed an application for unemployment compensation benefits. On April 16, 2012, ODJFS denied the application. On May 29, 2012, ODJFS's decision was reversed upon redetermination. Caldwell appealed. On July 3, 2012, the director of ODJFS affirmed the reversal and granted appellant unemployment compensation benefits. Caldwell appealed the director's determination, and a hearing was held by a commission hearing officer. On August 7, 2012, the hearing officer reversed the award of unemployment benefits, finding appellant had been discharged for just cause.

(¶ 4} Appellant appealed the hearing officer's decision to the commission. The commission granted appellant's request for review and held a hearing before a hearing officer. On November 8, 2012, the hearing officer affirmed the August 7, 2012 decision to deny benefits to appellant, finding that Caldwell had discharged appellant for just cause.

(¶ 5} Appellant appealed the commission's decision to the common pleas court. On March 14, 2013, the court issued a decision affirming the commission's decision to deny benefits to appellant. Appellant appeals the judgment of the common pleas court, asserting the following assignment of error:

The review commission's decision that Appellant was fired for just cause was unlawful, unreasonable and against the manifest weight of the evidence and the lower court's affirmance of the same should be reversed.

(¶ 6} In appellant's sole assignment of error, appellant contests the trial court's affirmance of the commission's decision. A trial court and an appellate court employ the same, well-established standard of review in unemployment compensation appeals: "[A] reviewing court may reverse the board's determination only if it is unlawful, unreasonable, or against the manifest weight of the evidence." Tzangas, Plakas & Mannos v. Ohio Bur. of Emp. Servs., 73 Ohio St.3d 694, 697 (1995); R.C 4141.282(H). When a reviewing court (whether a trial or appellate court) applies this standard, it may not make factual findings or determine witness credibility. Irvine v. State Unemployment Comp. Bd. of Rev., 19 Ohio St.3d 15, 18 (1985). Factual questions remain solely within the commission's province. Tzangas at 696. Thus, a reviewing court may not reverse the commission's decision simply because "reasonable minds might reach different conclusions." Irvine at 18. The focus of an appellate court when reviewing an unemployment compensation appeal is upon the commission's decision, not the trial court's decision. Moore v. Comparison Mkt., Inc., 9th Dist. No. 23255, 2006-Ohio-6382, ¶ 8. In determining whether a commission's decision is or is not supported by the manifest weight of the evidence, this court applies the civil manifest weight of the evidence standard set forth in C.E. Morris Co. v. Foley Constr. Co., 54 Ohio St.2d 279 (1978), syllabus, which holds: "Judgments supported by some competent, credible evidence going to all the essential elements of the case will not be reversed by a reviewing court as being against the manifest weight of the evidence."

(¶ 7} R.C. 4141.29 establishes the eligibility requirements for unemployment benefits. Pursuant to R.C. 4141.29(D)(2)(a), an individual is not eligible for unemployment compensation benefits if he or she has been "discharged for just cause in connection with the individual's work." The term "just cause" has been defined as " 'that which, to an ordinarily intelligent person, is a justifiable reason for doing or not doing a particular act.' " Irvine at 17, quoting Peyton v. Sun T.V., 44 Ohio App.2d 10, 12 (10th Dist.1975). Further, "[f]ault on an employee's part is an essential component of a just-cause determination." Williams v. Ohio Dept. of Job & Family Servs., 129 Ohio St.3d 332, 2011-Ohio-2897, ¶ 24. " '[T]he critical issue is not whether the employee has technically violated some company rule, but whether the employee by his actions [or inactions] demonstrated an unreasonable disregard for his employer's interests.' " Gregg v. SBC Ameritech, 10th Dist. No. 03AP-429, 2004-Ohio-1061, ¶ 39, quoting Piazza v. Ohio Bur. of Emp. Servs., 72 Ohio App.3d 353, 357 (8th Dist.1991).

(¶ 8} Several witnesses presented testimony at one or both of the two hearings before the commission. Appellant testified that he called off work on March 5, 2012 because he had a doctor's appointment for pain associated with a February 2012 car accident. He did not give the doctor's excuse to anyone at Caldwell because no one asked for it, although Joe Reichley, the sales manager, told him to bring it in when he returned to work. He had prior approval to miss work on March 6 and 9, 2012, and he left for Las Vegas on March 6, 2012. When he returned to work on March 10, 2012, Eplin called him into his office. Appellant testified that the first thing Eplin said to him was, "[N]igger, who in the hell do you think you are? Who gave you that special schedule and who told you you could go to Vegas?" He denied he told Eplin that Eplin did not have the authority to discipline him. Instead, appellant testified that he immediately went to Reichley and told him that Eplin had attacked him. Reichley told him to go outside and get some air for 30 minutes. After doing so, appellant came back and told Eplin that he had specifically told Duane Dumas, the general manager, and the owner, Karen Caldwell, that he was going to Las Vegas, and everybody knew he was going to Las Vegas. He said he did not say anything to Eplin or anyone else about Eplin's use of a racial epithet because he was afraid of losing his job. Eplin then asked him if he had his green book, the use of which had been instituted about one month prior to keep track of sale contacts. He then retrieved the green book for Eplin. He denied Caldwell's claim that he had entered into the green book that he was "too busy" to record anything. Eplin said his completion of the green book was not good enough, he should leave, and Eplin would have to talk to Dumas about the situation later. Appellant asked Reichley, who was with them at the time, what he should do so Reichley telephoned Dumas who said appellant should leave. Appellant left work and ...

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