A registered nurse spent years doing work other than nursing, then regained her nursing license on December 23, 2010.  In October 2011 she began working for Humboldt County Memorial Hospital.  She went on to obtain all the continuing education credits she needed to renew her license, which was in effect on March 23, 2013.  But March 23rd came and went, and the nurse forgot to renew her license.  She had gotten mixed up and miscalculated her license expiration date.

When the nurse noticed her mistake, she notified the appropriate supervisor, who said that she would look into the situation.  The supervisor did research and spoke to her employer, then notified the nurse that although she could not work as an RN, she could be a ward clerk and a CNA until the situation was resolved.  The nurse accepted this offer, believing it to be on a temporary basis.  In the meantime, she applied to renew her license and had it renewed on December 12th.  At no point did she receive any verbal or written warnings.

The next couple of months must have been confusing to the nurse--now ward clerk.  She called her supervisor frequently but got no useful response.  In January, she called a hospital board member to ask if that member knew what the hospital was going to do with her.  The Human Resources director then called her back and told her that although she didn’t know what action the employer planned to take, she would not lose her job.  On February 21, 2014, the former nurse was discharged for working as an RN without a license for 9 months.

The former nurse applied for unemployment benefits and won them, but her employer appealed arguing that she was discharged for misconduct.  In Iowa, if you’re fired for misconduct, you can’t get unemployment benefits.  But Administrative Law Judge Julie Elder decided the appeal on April 11th, ruling in the nurse’s favor. 

Judge Elder saw two problems with the employer’s argument.  First of all, Iowa Administrative Code has a pretty exacting definition of misconduct.  Here it is:

“’Misconduct’ is defined as a deliberate act or omission by a worker which constitutes a material breach of the duties and obligations arising out of such worker’s contract of employment. Misconduct as the term is used in the disqualification provision as being limited to conduct evincing such willful or wanton disregard of an employer’s interest as is found in deliberate violation or disregard of standards of behavior which the employer has the right to expect of employees, or in carelessness or negligence of such degree of 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 the 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 to be deemed misconduct within the meaning of the statute.”

Right off the bat, we see that in order for an act or omission to be misconduct, it has to be “deliberate”.  It seems beyond a doubt that the license problem was an accident.  As Judge Elder stated in her opinion, “The employer has the burden of proving disqualifying misconduct.”  Had Humboldt given more evidence, for example by providing an employee manual showing that nurses have a duty to keep their license up to date, perhaps the case might have turned out differently.  But as it is, the nurse did nothing more than make an honest mistake.

Secondly, when Iowa Workforce Development determines whether someone was fired for misconduct, there is a general rule that if someone is fired for past acts of misconduct, they cannot be denied benefits on the basis of having been fired for misconduct.  One fired for misconduct is denied benefits only when fired for a current act of misconduct.  But nearly three months elapsed between when Humboldt found out about the licensing issue and when the nurse was fired.  Even if her licensing problem was misconduct, it was not a current act of misconduct.  Therefore even in that case she couldn’t be denied benefits on the basis of having been fired for misconduct.

Here’s the takeaway: even if you made a major mistake on the job that you think is misconduct,  you might still be able to get unemployment benefits.  If we can help you call the Lombardi Law Firm to speak with attorneys Steve Lombardi and Katrina Schaefer. We can be reached at 515-222-1110 or by emailing us at [email protected] and [email protected] We look forward to your call.

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