February 1, 2012
Unemployment Compensation

by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

When Mary Williams was offered a promotion at her job with Bridgeway, Inc., she had no idea that it would lead to a legal challenge that would bring her here – to the Supreme Court of Ohio. Bridgeway is a community mental health center that provides a variety of services, including housing services, employment services, and counseling to the mentally ill.

About three months after Mary was hired as a full-time residential social worker, she was offered a promotion to residential services program manager. In that position she would supervise and manage two 24-hour residential facilities and be responsible for all aspects of the operation, including signing off on clinical treatment plans.

The promotion was conditioned on the requirement that Mary obtain certification as a licensed independent social worker (“LISW”) within 15 months. Her appointment letter made it clear what was required: “Failure to complete the LISW licensure by May of 2008 will make you ineligible to keep this position.” Mary signed the letter, acknowledging that she accepted “the terms and conditions of employment.”

Mary was scheduled to take the LISW exam in April 2008, but because of health concerns, she rescheduled the test for June – with Bridgeway's consent. Unfortunately, she didn’t receive a passing score in June and wasn’t eligible to take the exam again for 90 days. Because she hadn’t gotten her certification within the time required, Mary was terminated.

When Mary filed for unemployment compensation, her application was denied because it was determined that she had been discharged with just cause. At a review hearing, Mary’s supervisor acknowledged that another program manager, who had worked at Bridgeway for 13 years, didn’t have LISW certification – but she was a registered nurse and a licensed counselor.

Additionally, when the supervisor started with Bridgeway as a program manager in 2000, she didn’t have certification either. But following her promotion to supervisor in 2006, she obtained the license.

In responding to the issue of the managers who weren’t certified, the hearing officer stated, “It is not uncommon to have employers increase the education pre-requisites in order to be hired or maintain employment.” The hearing officer thus affirmed the previous decision that Mary had been discharged with just cause.

Mary took her case to the Court of Common Pleas of Cuyahoga County, which affirmed the Unemployment Compensation Review Commission’s decision. But the court of appeals – where she went next – reversed the lower court, concluding that Mary’s requirement to obtain an LISW certification wasn’t fairly applied to other program managers. After that, her case came before us for final review.

Ohio’s unemployment law says that no person will be paid benefits if “the individual quit work without just cause or has been discharged for just cause in connection with the individual’s work…”

Although the statute doesn’t define the term, our court has stated that “just cause” is “that which, to an ordinarily intelligent person, is a justifiable reason for doing or not doing a particular act.” “Just cause” depends on the factual circumstances of each case.

In 1991, our court said that the purpose of the Unemployment Compensation Act is “to enable unfortunate employees, who become and remain involuntarily unemployed by adverse business and industrial conditions, to subsist on a reasonably decent level and is in keeping with humanitarian and enlightened concepts of this modern age.”

We cautioned, however, that the Act doesn’t “exist to protect employees from themselves, but to protect them from economic forces over which they have no control. When an employee is at fault, he is no longer the victim of fortune’s whims, but is instead directly responsible for his own predicament. Fault on the employee’s part separates him from the Act’s intent and the Act’s protection. Thus, fault is essential to the unique chemistry of a just cause termination.”

In this case, it’s clear that Mary knew she had to get certification within 15 months or face termination. There’s no evidence that obtaining the certification within that timeframe was an unreasonable expectation.

Finding that Mary’s discharge was with just cause is consistent with the purpose of the Unemployment Compensation Act, which “was intended to provide financial assistance to an individual who had worked, was able and willing to work, but was temporarily without employment through no fault” of her own.

There were no outside economic factors influencing Mary’s termination. She had a responsibility to obtain the license. Failing to meet that requirement was sufficient to establish fault.

The court of appeals – in concluding that Mary’s termination was without just cause because the requirement to obtain certification wasn’t fairly applied to all the program managers – relied on a fairness standard that had been established by that court in 1986. But our court never adopted that standard, and we didn’t find it necessary to do so now.

Mary accepted the promotion knowing that she was required to obtain certification within 15 months. The requirement was stated as an express condition of the promotion; it wasn’t a company policy. Plus, she wasn’t in the same situation as the other program managers.

Mary made a bona fide effort to get certified, but she failed to meet the requirement and was terminated with just cause. As we have stated in the past, “To find that an employee is entitled to unemployment compensation when she is terminated for her inability to perform the job for which she was hired would discourage employers from taking a chance on an unproven worker.

“Most employees need an employer to take a leap of faith when initially hiring them. An employer relies upon an employee’s representations that she can adequately perform the required work. Likewise, an employee relies upon an employer’s description of what the job will entail. The party that fails to live up to those expectations is at fault.”

By a seven-to-zero vote we reversed the judgment of the court of appeals and concluded that the Unemployment Compensation Review Commission’s decision to deny Mary’s unemployment was not unlawful, unreasonable, or against the manifest weight of the evidence.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The case referred to is Williams v. Ohio Dept. of Job & Family Servs., 129 Ohio St.3d 332, 2011-Ohio-2897. Case No. 2010-1166. Decided June 22, 2011. Majority opinion written by Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger.