The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) and the U.S. Supreme Court have come down on the side of employers in two key employment-law issues during the past week.
The state SJC affirmed last Thursday that employees who accept a company’s voluntary separation offer are not entitled to unemployment benefits. The ruling upheld decisions by a lower court and by the unemployment assistance Board of Review that plaintiff Kristen Connolly was not eligible for benefits because she left her customer-service job at Verizon in part for personal reasons and did not believe her job was in jeopardy.
AIM filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the commonwealth’s decision to deny benefits.
The United State Supreme Court, meanwhile, threw out potentially the largest employment discrimination case in the nation’s history today when it ruled that as many as 1.5 million women may not proceed with a class action against Wal-Mart for allegedly discriminating against them in pay and promotion decisions. The high court issued a unanimous opinion that plaintiffs’ lawyers had improperly sued under a part of the class action rules that was not primarily concerned with monetary claims.
The court did not decide whether Wal-Mart discriminated against the women, only that they could not proceed as a class. The New York Times reports that the court’s decision will almost certainly affect all sorts of other class-action suits, including ones asserting antitrust, securities and product liability violations.
The Massachusetts unemployment-benefits case turned on the Supreme Judicial Court’s finding that Connolly left her job “without good cause attributable to Verizon.”
Connolly was a customer-service representative for Verizon in 2008 when the company offered union employees the opportunity to participate in a voluntary separation agreement that provided certain benefits in exchange for their termination. Court documents indicate that Connolly applied for, and accepted, the package.
“At the time, the claimant was neither compelled to apply, nor did she believe that her job was in jeopardy, nor was there a surplus of employees in her department. The claimant's decision to accept the package was influenced by her dislike of the job, the length of her commute, and a concern that she would be transferred to the Verizon facility in Andover,” the court wrote.
“There were no layoffs in her department after the claimant left Verizon.”
The commonwealth initially approved Connolly to collect unemployment benefits, but the board of review later denied her application. She claimed in court that she should be able collect UI benefits because Verizon initiated a workforce reduction and took the final step in the process by terminating her, making her termination involuntary within the meaning of the statute. The court rejected that argument.
AIM intervened in the case, along with the New England Legal Foundation, because awarding benefits to an employee who accepts a voluntary separation offer, would create dangerous precedent for the unemployment insurance system.
“The novel approach (Connolly) advocates would abandon the kind of fact-sensitive inquiries presently undertaken by this court and the Appeals Court in unemployment-benefits cases. As a result, virtually all employees who participate voluntarily in any form of ‘workforce reduction’ would qualify for benefits,” AIM and the Legal Foundation wrote.
“This would unnecessarily burden the commonwealth’s unemployment benefit system and is simply not justified by statute or case law. “