Bombard, Jr. v. Dep't of Labor, 2010 VT 100 (mem.).
A public service announcement from SCOV this week: if your boss tells you that he wants to climb a tower and shoot a hundred people, you might want to tell another manager about it. But whatever you do, don’t just run for your life—at least not if you want unemployment benefits. Because if you decide to quit before you give the higher-ups a chance to “rectify the situation” you’re going to be out of luck proving that you left with good cause.
In this denial-of-benefits appeal, an employee at an
Essex auto parts store argued that he had good cause to quit after the manager shared his mass-killing fantasy. The previous week, the same manager had spent a day on the phone with his wife, shouting, throwing things around the store, and driving off a few times for good measure. For whatever reason, the employee just didn’t feel comfortable tapping his manager on the shoulder to ask him to simmer down. Instead, he left a voicemail for the regional manager.
The regional manager never called back—probably busy lighting aromatherapy candles and building a meditation garden for the Burlington store manager, who also had a penchant for getting mad, throwing stuff, and using “profane and threatening language” towards this same employee. That’s how our lucky employee ended up at the
Essex location in the first place. SCOV wasn’t convinced by the employee’s argument, however, that the Department of Labor should have taken a closer look at the anger management issues at the store to evaluate whether he had good cause to quit. Burlington
Heading into work the next day, the employee, still scared, decided to err on the side of I-think-’ve-seen-this-on-the-news-before, and call in with the stand-by “my father had a heart attack” excuse. SCOV did not expressly opine on the karmic dangers of lying about a loved one’s illness or death. To further complicate things when the employee finally met up with the regional manager the next day, he never alluded to the killing-spree threat.
The standard for good cause for a voluntary quit is brought to you by the reasonable man. Hmm. What would a reasonable person do under the circumstances? We’ve all had difficult bosses before, but who can say they’ve ever needed riot gear to go work retail? Maybe on Black Friday . . . but seriously? Here’s what the SCOV survey says: a reasonable person doesn’t give up quite so fast.
First off, the employee didn’t prove that he actually faced a hostile work environment. According to the DOL’s findings, the store manager was “blowing off steam,” but even if he had been serious, his ire wasn’t directed at the employee. (This is where the employee cries out, “maybe not YET!” He’d only been at the
Essex store for a month.) And besides, the employee went back on the third day, at least long enough to tell the regional manager that the store manager had anger problems. And he didn’t say anything about the possible shooting rampage. Instead, he quit on the spot, without even giving the regional manager an opportunity to send him to Williston, where no doubt Gandhi himself presides. Ultimately, the employee just didn’t give the employer enough notice of the problem or enough time to fix it.
The employee either had to show that the situation was truly intolerable by actually telling somebody about the killing-spree comment or stick it out longer. The Court could have cited Buddhist teachings on this last point: the only antidote to anger is patience.
This case seems to be the companion to another recent Supreme Court decision, Demar v. Dep’t of Labor, 2010 VT 69, and part of the SCOV’s strong reassertion of the need for employees to give employers a chance to rectify bad situations before they quit.
Justice Johnson wrote the lone dissent, finding that the threat to kill was sufficient or in the alternative, merited a remand for more precise factual findings, and taking the other side of the reasonableness coin.