Minn. Stat. §480A.08, subd. 3 (1996).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Commissioner of Economic Security,
Minnesota Department of Economic Security
Agency No. 10923 UC 96
Dyan J. Ebert, Quinlivan, Sherwood, Spellacy & Tarvestad, P.A., 400 South First St., Ste. 600, P.O. Box 1008, St. Cloud, MN 56302 (for respondent employer)
Kent E. Todd, Minnesota Department of Economic Security, 390 North Robert Street, St. Paul, MN 55101 (for respondent commissioner)
Considered and decided by Toussaint, Chief Judge, Randall, Judge, and Norton, Judge.
Relator contends the commissioner's representative erred in concluding that relator was disqualified from receiving reemployment insurance benefits because she was discharged for misconduct. The record supports the decision of the commissioner's representative. We affirm.
Respondent Fingerhut Corporation terminated relator Helen A. Hardwig after she went into a coworker's purse and looked at a bonus check the employee had received as a merit award. Relator admitted going into the employee's purse, looking at the check, being caught in the act, and apologizing afterward. Fingerhut terminated relator because she had violated company policy when she invaded the other employee's privacy and conducted herself in a manner unfitting for a supervisor.
Relator filed a claim for reemployment insurance benefits. The initial claims representative disqualified relator from receiving benefits after he determined that she had been discharged for misconduct. After the evidentiary hearing, the reemployment insurance judge similarly disqualified relator from receiving benefits. The commissioner's representative affirmed.
The supreme court has defined "misconduct" as:
[C]onduct evincing such willful or wanton disregard of an employer's interests as is found in deliberate violations or disregard of standards of behavior which the employer has the right to expect of his employee, or in carelessness or negligence of such degree or recurrence as to manifest equal culpability, wrongful intent or evil design, or to show an intentional and substantial disregard of the employer's interests or of the employee's duties and obligations to his employer. On the other hand mere inefficiency, unsatisfactory conduct, failure in good performance as the result of inability or incapacity, inadvertencies or ordinary negligence in isolated instances, or good faith errors in judgment or discretion are not bound to be deemed "misconduct."
Tilseth v. Midwest Lumber Co., 295 Minn. 372, 374-75, 204 N.W.2d 644, 646 (1973). Misconduct may also be a lack of concern for one's job. Feia v. St. Cloud State College, 309 Minn. 564, 565, 244 N.W.2d 635, 636 (1976). Persons who are discharged from employment as a result of misconduct are disqualified from receiving reemployment insurance benefits. Minn. Stat. § 268.09, subd. 1(b) (1996). The employer bears the burden of proving the employee committed misconduct. Windsperger v. Broadway Liquor Outlet, 346 N.W.2d 142, 143 (Minn. 1984).
Relator argues that her behavior was comparable to a single-hotheaded incident, excepted from the definition of misconduct in Windsperger, 346 N.W.2d at 145. But relator knowingly and willfully chose to look for the check; her conduct was not a hotheaded incident. Furthermore, a single incident may constitute misconduct when an employee willfully chooses a course of action adverse to the employer's interest. Colburn, 346 N.W.2d at 161 (holding that waitress, who left shift early once without permission, committed misconduct).
Relator also contends her conduct did not harm Fingerhut. An employer need not prove actual harm to establish that an employee committed misconduct. Sivertson v. Sims Sec., Inc., 390 N.W.2d 868, 871 (Minn. App. 1986), review denied (Minn. Aug. 20, 1986). Nevertheless, mistrust of a supervisor could harm employee morale and the work environment and ultimately harm the employer by depleting or diminishing the quality of the workforce. See Booher v. Transport Clearings of Twin Cities, Inc., 260 N.W.2d 181, 183 (Minn. 1977) (holding misconduct occurred where employee was disruptive to department by causing dissension and spreading rumors). The supreme court has upheld the discharge for misconduct of an employee whose divisive, gossipy, and confrontational behavior caused dissension and disruption among other employees. Id. The supreme court also has noted that an employer has a duty to keep the work environment dignified and respectful for employees. Nyberg v. R. N. Cardozo & Brother, Inc., 243 Minn. 361, 362-64, 67 N.W.2d 821, 822-23 (1954) (condemning work environment where supervisor cursed, swore, used profanity, and yelled at employee).
The commissioner's representative determined that Fingerhut discharged relator because she "deliberately violated her subordinate's right to privacy in order to satisfy her own curiosity" about the amount of the bonus check. Concluding that this conduct was an unacceptable breach of the right to privacy, the commissioner's representative noted that an employer "has the right to expect that all of its employees, especially supervisors in their capacity as role models, will treat their fellow employees with dignity and respect."
The law and the facts support this analysis. Fingerhut's employee handbook sets forth specific guidelines for employee behavior, such as requiring professional conduct at all times and not tolerating disrespectful behavior toward others. Contrary to these guidelines, relator willfully invaded another employee's private desk space and purse to look at a confidential check. The commissioner's representative properly determined that relator's actions constitute misconduct and disqualify her from receiving reemployment insurance benefits.