Award of unemployment compensation benefits does not equal entitlement to COBRA benefits

A finding by an unemployment compensation office that a police officer was eligible for benefits was not sufficient evidence that the officer was also entitled to COBRA benefits, according to a decision rendered by a Florida district court.

Officer is fired. Pennsylvania State Trooper William Gilson was fired from his job after more than a year of investigations and arbitration proceedings, based on allegations of sexual misconduct involving a crisis service worker. Gilson’s termination was based, not just on the misconduct, but on his supposed “deception” in denying the allegations. Gilson applied for, and received, unemployment compensation, but was denied COBRA continuation coverage benefits. Gilson also had a number of promising job interviews after he was fired, but state agency employers who initially planned to hire him subsequently refused to do so based on the distribution of a police major’s memorandum detailing the field regulations he had been held to have violated. Gilson filed suit in district court against his former employer, alleging violations of COBRA, along with other claims that included violations of procedural due process rights, equal protection rights, and civil rights, plus state law claims.

The employer, (the Pennsylvania State Police), filed a motion for summary judgment, and the court granted the motion on all counts. With regard to his COBRA claim, Gilson had contended that his termination was a qualifying event, entitling him to 18 months of continuation coverage. The Pennsylvania State Police argued that Gilson’s termination was based on gross misconduct, thereby relieving it of the obligation to provide COBRA benefits.

Although COBRA does not defined gross misconduct, the court noted that it and other courts had previously defined gross misconduct with reference to state unemployment compensation cases. The state police cited several cases in which courts held that acts of dishonesty amounted to gross misconduct under COBRA. In addition, the court agreed that, as a matter of law, the alleged sexual misconduct plus Gilson’s supposed deception demonstrated a willful, wanton disregard of his employer’s interest, a deliberate violation of the employer’s rules, a disregard of appropriate standards of behavior, and negligence consisting of an intentional disregard of his employer’s interests. These all sufficed to show willful misconduct, said the court.

Unemployment office disagrees? Gilson had argued that summary judgment was not appropriate as there was still a genuine issue of material fact with regard to whether or not he engaged in willful misconduct, because he had been awarded unemployment compensation benefits. More specifically, Gilson contended that the unemployment office had found that his termination “was not sufficiently related in time to the date of the separation [over one (1) year]. As such, the separation cannot be said to have been cause by the rule violation…..” The unemployment office then determined that it had to provide benefits.

The court pointed out, however, that the ruling from the unemployment office did not appear in the record, so it could not interpret the import of the ruling and its relevance to the unemployment office’s decision on Gilson’s alleged gross misconduct. Not only that, said the court, it appeared that the unemployment office’s ruling was based merely on its reluctance to deny benefits, based only on the lapse of time (over one year) between the alleged misconduct and Gilson’s actual termination. Holding that no genuinely disputed issue of fact existed on the record regarding Gilson’s gross misconduct, the court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment.

SOURCE: Gilson v. The Pennsylvania State Police, (DC PA) No. 1:12-cv-002, March 30, 2016.

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