Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Good Deed Doesn't Go Unnoticed By Court

Courts -- appellate courts in particular -- are known for their heads and not their hearts. A California appeals court, however, showed it had a heart recently when it approved unemployment benefits for a man who was fired for trying to do a good deed.

The case involved Jose Robles, 64, a naturalized U.S. citizen from the Phillippines, who was fired from his $20.75-an-hour job of collecting grease at restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area in January 2010.

It seems a friend of his had an accident and needed steel-toed shoes. Robles's employer, Liquid Environmental Solutions of Hayward, allowed its employees to buy work shoes at a Red Wing Shoe Store using a $150 yearly allowance.

Robles went to the store and asked the clerk to measure his friend for the shoes because he was giving them to him. When the clerk refused, Robles didn't argue. But, when his employer found out what he had tried to do, they fired him.

"I asked the lady to have my friend's foot be measured for I had intended to give (the shoes) to him," Robles said in a statement in court papers. "He had a recent home accident and needed safety shoes. I honestly believed I can do the noble gesture and not jeopardize my own safety. I had a reserve pair of shoes at home and fully confident I would be wearing one in good condition for another year..."

When the store clerk refused to let him buy the shoes, Robles didn't argue. But, when his employer found out what he had tried to do, they fired him. "I deeply regret what I attempted to undertake, and firmly swear would not do it again," he said in the statement.

The state Employment Development Department denied him jobless benefits, saying that Mr. Robles "may have had good intentions toward a friend but in his actions he breached a serious obligation he had toward his employer." After a trial court judge upheld the EDD's decision, Robles appealed to the First District Court of Appeal. There, Justice Timothy A. Reardon ruled that Robles's actions did not amount to employee "misconduct," which is required to deny benefits.

His reasoning showed heart: "Robles did not try to hide anything when he went to the shoe store. Next, it is undisputed that he wanted to help his friend who had a recent home accident. Further, Robles had decent safety shoes and did not feel he would jeopardize the safety purpose of the allowance or otherwise injure his employer's interests. ... And, further Robles did not use the shoe allowance for his friend. At most, Robles was guilty of a good faith error in judgment" and not misconduct.

He ordered the state to "award Robles the unemployment insurance benefits withheld, plus interest."

On July 16, the opinion was approved as a legal precedent in California. The attorney for Mr. Robles, who has since moved back to the Phillippines to care for his 95-year-old father, said the case can now be cited by other unemployed people who are "fired for marginal conduct" and fighting for their benefits.

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