Workplace bullying targets winning unemployment benefits appeals in New York State

Thanks to a developing line of administrative appeal decisions, workers in New York State who resign their jobs due to bullying and employer abuse could still retain eligibility for unemployment benefits.

Under New York State labor law, workers who voluntarily resign without good cause are presumptively ineligible to receive unemployment benefits. Most other states follow a similar rule. Of course, this frequently leaves targets of workplace bullying in a bind when it comes to qualifying for unemployment benefits. All too often, quitting is the only way to escape the abuse.

That’s why I was so pleased to hear from James Williams, an attorney with Legal Services of Central New York, who sent news of a recent decision in a case he argued before the New York Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board.

Case Details

The claimant appealed a denial of unemployment benefits holding that he voluntarily resigned his job with a local government entity, without good cause. The Administrative Law Judge overruled the denial of benefits, rendering these findings and a decision:

The undisputed credible evidence establishes that the claimant left employment voluntarily . . . after being notified . . . that he was on probation, because he felt bullied, harassed and set up by his supervisor. I credit the claimant’s credible sworn testimony that his supervisor’s repeated criticism and scolding of him in a raised voice made him feel bullied and harassed, especially in the presence of other employees. I further credit the claimant’s credible sworn testimony that the supervisor’s actions including pointing and reprimanding him, consisted of the word “stupid”, and other language which embarrassed the claimant and that the claimant believed he was being ridiculed by the supervisor. An employee is not obligated to subject himself to such behavior. Given that the claimant had complained to the employer about the supervisor’s behavior just two months earlier, and that the supervisor’s mistreatment not only continued, but escalated, I conclude that the claimant had good cause within the meaning of the unemployment insurance Law to quit when he did. Additionally, while disagreeing with a reprimand or criticism about work performance may not always constitute good cause to quit, receiving reprimands in the presence of one’s co-workers may be. . . . Under the circumstances herein, the supervisor’s treatment of the claimant exceeded the bounds of propriety, with the result that the claimant had good cause to quit. His unemployment ended under nondisqualifying conditions.

Other Decisions

Attorney Williams relied upon previous decisions by the full Appeal Board holding that disrespectful and bullying-type behaviors that exceed the bounds of propriety (that appears to be the key phrase) may constitute good cause to voluntarily leave a job and thus not disqualify someone from receiving unemployment benefits. They may be accessed at the Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board website:

  • Appeal Board No. 571514 (July 3, 2013)
  • Appeal Board No. 559667 (February 28, 2012)
  • Appeal Board No. 558223 (January 25, 2012)
  • Appeal Board No. 549810 (September 10, 2010)

Jim added in an e-mail that potential New York claimants who may fit this scenario “are advised to take steps to try and save their jobs prior to quitting.  They will want to be able to show to the Department of Labor and to an ALJ that they took steps to try to change the situation – complaining to management, human resources, etc. – before quitting.”

Using These Decisions

The reasoning in these decisions is limited to unemployment benefits cases. Furthermore, the holdings of these cases are not binding upon unemployment benefits claims in other states. However, they can be brought to the attention of unemployment insurance agencies elsewhere as persuasive precedent.

In addition, this serves as an important lesson to those who may have been initially denied unemployment benefits after leaving a job due to bullying behaviors. It is not uncommon for initial denials to be reversed on appeal, and these cases provide genuine reason for optimism in situations involving abusive work environments.

***

Many thanks to Jim Williams, a former colleague at the Labor Bureau of the New York State Attorney General’s Office many years ago, for litigating these unemployment insurance cases and for bringing them to my attention. It is inspiring to see a former colleague continuing to do work that makes a positive difference in the lives of others.

12 responses

  1. Interesting article and valuable information. I would like to know if there are any know cases of Workers Compensation awards due to bullying.

  2. I received unemployment in a strange way in Wisconsin. The company I worked for (where I was bullied since 2010), terminated me because I would not go along with accommodations made for me after I broke my wrist. The accommodations (they knew) would make my return to work extremely difficult and almost impossible; long story. I was never involved any accommodation process and nothing was mentioned to me until the first day I was to return to work (my normal schedule). After I was terminated for not going along with the “Silly Accommodations”. I had to attend an Unemployment Hearing. It was horrible. The company changed the term “termination” to “separation” and “other”; and then said I “quit” which I never did. At the Unemployment Hearing, the company brought their lawyer and 3 witnesses. It was only supposed to take 45 minutes. The lawyer took more than double that time and the judge became frustrated. We needed to reschedule to continue the hearing. I had to obtain a lawyer because I did not know this would become so involved. The judge’s final decision was “Quit for Good Cause”. All that malarkey and waste of time added to my original bully treatment at work. Worked at the company for 23+ years. Never took unemployment in my entire life.

    Also, to answer the question above from DDM, my answer is Workman’s Compensation due to harassment (even though I believe bullying fits perfectly in that category). I do not know of any cases for bullying offhand, reason being – no Healthy Workplace Law. I was also told I could file a civil suite. “Bullying” can be worse than the typical definition of harassment, unhealthy workplace. It takes more thought. Mind games, lying, mobbing, many more, causing emotional problems, PTSD, and it changes your outlook on what you thought work should be like.

    Note: The picture for GEM is my dad proudly wearing one of the T-shirts I had made about the Healthy Workplace Bill becoming a Law; I have given away over 20 so far! Hope you can see it.

  3. Wow! This is, indeed, great news! Thanks so much for bringing it to our attention. Also, it’s heartening to hear of an administrative law judge who had the courage to rule in favor of basic human decency….”an employee is not obligated to subject himself to such behavior.” Indeed!

  4. Interesting article. I just recently won an unemployment appeal, as I was denied at the first level, as the adjudicator sided with the employer. There were several inaccuacies in his report that needed to be addressed, if warranted, at the next level.

    I was terminated with cause due to an accusation of insubordination that my immediate supervisor (my bully) fabricated. She couldn’t find any just reason to fire me, so she had to make one up.

    At any rate, I was so thankful that I did have representation from a local community legal aid organization. The CEO represented the organization – he was the one who fired me. I found it quite interesting that even though the organization’s board president is an attorney, he was not present to represent the issue.

    My bully did not show up nor did she submit a written affividavit. His testimony was purely hearsay, as he was not present when my bully allegedly gave me an order that she later said I disobeyed.

    Furthermore, the CEO waited twelve working days from date of alleged incident before he summoned me into a conference room for my termination meeting (unexpected meeting).

    In essence, he did not meet the burden of proof. My side provided three separate e-mail threads, highlighting the history of inappropriate behavior visited upon me by my bullying supervisor. Also, included in the packet was an e-mail thread between the CEO, my bully, and myself during the timeframe in which I had already allegedly engaged in this insubordinate behavior.

    None of the e-mails addressed the alleged incident commited by me. My last e-mail to my bully, with CEO attached, was a very candid (yet, respectful) response to her most recent egregious behavior that was visited upon me during this timeframe.

    Also, in the packet was a letter from a therapist that my daughter and I had worked with for two years, in which she highlighted the depleted presentation of self that I would sometimes present with at the sessions, and detailed how the bullying had negatively impacted upon my family life.

    Finally, I stated what I thought the rationale was for my termination, which was the e-mail that I had last sent during this time, responding to my bully and encouraging her seek professional support for her behavior.

    I did testify that I would not have normally been so candid, however, I had just returned from an eight work day sick leave due to my daughter having a major surgery in Boston, not to mention the post-surgerical complications that arose.

    My true sense of being shocked and appalled by her grossly insenstive behavior was quite evident in the last e-mail that I had sent. Furthermore, I stated that the reason for my termination was retaliation.

    I feel badly for the employees who have to live in fear, as well as engage in an inordinate amount of people-pleasing, as well as collude with the bully when she decides who the next target will be, just so that they can avoid being targeted and keep their jobs.

    She damages people and should not be in a position of authority over others. That is how sick I truly believe – and have experienced – their person to be.

  5. I also want to point out that, though it’s illegal in some states to secretly record an employer’s abusive behavior, an employee can always advise a bullying boss that they would like to record any interactions they have with each other. If the employer agrees, the employee should be sure to record their consent before beginning the conversation. If he or she refuses, the employee should document their unwillingness as well as, of course, any ensuing abuse. This came to mind as one important way in which a claimant can prove that they attempted to save their job. (I do realize that it would be difficult to adopt this course of action unless one were in an absolutely intolerable situation; however, at times, bullies do back down when directly confronted.)

    • I was told it is legal to have a third person, preferably the director, at all meetings with the bully, too. Since it is illegal to have any recording device at work in the government, including cellphones, cameras, audio and video records, I asked if I could take cognitive notes that my therapist recommended. It was allowed until I sent them to OHR at their request. They claimed I was in a hostile work environment and needed to transfer out.

  6. Pingback: Today’s Workplace » Workplace bullying targets winning unemployment benefits appeals in New York State

  7. Thanks for sharing the information. Good to hear something promising. I lived amidst the chaos and betrayal of workplace bullying the final four of my fourteen years at my previous employer. Perhaps it was a blessing to finally be let go, but i left severely depleted. I’m attempting to work through the after-effects but difficult and, so far, I just haven’t figured out how to shake off the devastation. Perhaps healing comes easier if one is able to leave the abusive environment earlier realizing that to do so does not necessarily equate with loss of home, access to medicine, and money to feed the children.

    • Maybe healing takes time to realize the impact of bullying upon ourselves. I look back and regret that I did not see it coming as other coworkers did and transferred before it happened. You see, our Admin. III was wrongfully promoted to manager after being strictly warned not to apply for that position ever. I became his target who was abused worse than ever before. He used to just copy and record my time and production stats, threatened to give me a fat lip, and gossiped about me; but later, he took away all my work, threatened to put me on a desk at the back of the office all by myself with just a typewriter, and put his lies about me in writing on my reviews, in disciplinary actions, and even slandering my personnel file. Luckily, I kept detailed cognitive notes, my therapist taught me long ago to try to figure out crises that were too difficult to put into my schema.

  8. I appealed the deputy’s decision denying me my unemployment benefits because I was allegedly disciplinary discharged. After my appeals hearing, the hearing officer awarded me full benefits claiming that my testimony was more credible than their lack of evidence.

    • You see, bullies do not want to get caught and do not think they are leaving any evidence behind of their acts. The traumatic memories of the abuse never leave the minds of the victims, though. We can feel free to talk about our years of torment, and we will be believed.

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