Gbortoe v. Dir., Ohio Dept. of Job & Family Servs., 2023-Ohio-4844

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals (Franklin County) upheld a denial of benefits to an employee who quit work after receiving only a written disciplinary letter.

According to the employee, he resigned his position after “an incident regarding another individual’s gender preferences.” In his telling, he had a phone conversation in which he welcomed a newly promoted member of the team. The employee testified there was no discussion of gender preferences during that call, and it was not until the following week that a different coworker informed the employee about the newly promoted employee’s gender pronouns. The employee responded to this coworker’s comment, expressing he was “not interested” in that topic and he “[does not] believe in that.” That comment led to corrective action meetings with company leadership. In one of the meetings, the employer informed the employee he would receive a disciplinary warning for his conduct.

The manager testified that the employer received a complaint about the employee after he audibly opined the newly promoted employee was not capable of succeeding in their new role. The employer accused the employee of violating the code of conduct by vocalizing his opinion loudly enough to be audible around the office. The manager explained that the employee was issued a written warning, but his job was not in jeopardy at the time of his resignation. In part, the written warning admonished the employee as follows: “You must demonstrate consistently appropriate behavior in the workplace going forward in accordance with [employer’s] Code of Conduct. Failure to do so may result in further corrective action, up to and including termination of employment.”

The employee lost at all levels before the Unemployment Compensation Review Commission and then filed an appeal to the Court of Common Pleas. To no one’s surprise, except perhaps the employee, the Court upheld the Commission’s denial. The employee appealed.

The Court of Appeals held that the employee failed to prove he was entitled to unemployment benefits. “Although he contends his employer created a hostile work environment and threatened to fire him, the record shows employer merely issued [employee] a written warning admonishing him for his behavior. Although the warning noted the employer could impose future sanctions up to and including firing for continued inappropriate workplace behavior, it did not threaten [employee’s] employment status.

What this means for your District
From time to time to time, employees quit and then claim they were threatened with termination or were “constructively discharged,” essentially leaving them with no choice but to resign.

An employee who resigns from employment with good case to do so can obtain unemployment benefits. Such good cause might be the existence of work conditions that are a danger to health and safety when the employer refuses to fix the conditions after being notified (constructive discharge), or the employee was given the option to resign or be fired, and resigned under circumstances where the employer had no cause to terminate employment, If an employee resigns in lieu of being terminated, the Unemployment Commission will analyze whether the employer had just cause to terminate in the first place.

Where here, the employer is not threatening to terminate the employee unless he resigns, and did not refuse to mitigate unsafe working conditions, the employer will be able to defend against the claim for benefits. Make sure you are always documenting the circumstances of an employee’s separation so that you will have evidence to establish what the truth is.