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10/21/87 Alfonso Barron, v. Sally Ward

October 21, 1987





517 N.E.2d 591, 165 Ill. App. 3d 653, 115 Ill. Dec. 180 1987.IL.1568

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. Marilyn R. Komosa, Judge, presiding.


JUSTICE FREEMAN delivered the opinion of the court. McNAMARA, P.J., and RIZZI, J., concur.


This is an appeal of a judgment of the circuit court of Cook County reversing a decision of the defendant Board of Review (Board) of the Department of Employment Security (Department) upholding the denial of plaintiff's claim for unemployment compensation benefits. The State defendants contend: (1) an employee who quits merely because he has a continuing personality conflict with a fellow employee is ineligible for unemployment benefits because he voluntarily left his employment without good cause attributable to his employer; (2) to qualify for unemployment compensation benefits an employee must first take affirmative action to alleviate or rectify a personality conflict with a fellow employee before he quits; and (3) the Board's decision was not against the manifest weight of the evidence.

Plaintiff worked as a shipping clerk for defendant Florence Corporation (Florence) from April 16, 1984, until he quit on January 30, 1985. During the first four months of plaintiff's employment, he worked with John Hillaries. Plaintiff, who is Mexican, claimed that during this time, Hillaries would make derogatory remarks about Mexicans in general and plaintiff in particular. In August 1984, plaintiff and Hillaries were involved in an altercation during which Hillaries struck plaintiff in the face, injuring him. As a result, both employees were suspended for a time and, upon their return, Hillaries was transferred to another department. Plaintiff claimed that after the transfer, Hillaries threatened to kill him and would laugh at plaintiff when he would see him in the plant. Plaintiff claimed he did not report these incidents to his supervisors because he was not working directly with Hillaries and because he thought it would be pointless to do so.

On January 30, 1985, Florence decided to transfer Hillaries back to shipping due to a vacancy in the department which required a person who could read and write English. When plaintiff's immediate supervisor informed him Hillaries would be transferred to the shipping department the next day, plaintiff told him he could not, and would not, work with Hillaries. When Florence's traffic manager and plaintiff's union steward were summoned to speak with him, he told them of Hillaries' harassment, that he could not work with Hillaries and that if forced to do so he would have to kill him. The union steward told plaintiff he should not quit but "just stay on and work." The Florence supervisors told plaintiff they had to transfer Hillaries because no other employee could fill the spot and that he would have to work and get along with Hillaries. At the end of his shift, plaintiff told Florence's supervisors and the union steward that he was quitting. Plaintiff never returned to work. Thereafter, plaintiff's union held a grievance meeting and found that plaintiff had voluntarily left his employment.

Plaintiff filed a claim for unemployment benefits with the Illinois Department of Labor's Unemployment Insurance Division on February 11, 1985. The claims adjudicator denied the claim, ruling that, although plaintiff's reason for leaving was attributable to Florence since it was aware of his working conditions and could have controlled them, plaintiff had not exhausted reasonable alternatives in an effort to correct the situation before leaving. Plaintiff was informed that his claim was denied because he had "voluntarily quit for personal reasons." Plaintiff appealed the denial to the defendant Department's Benefit Appeals Subdivision and the referee affirmed the denial. Plaintiff then appealed to the defendant Board, which also affirmed the denial on the grounds that plaintiff "failed to exhaust all reasonable alternatives before quitting" and "voluntarily left work without good cause attributable to his employer."

Plaintiff filed a complaint for administrative review of the Board's decision and the trial court reversed, stating: "It does appear as though [plaintiff] advised two people in management, and apparently he spoke to the union representative . . . about what he should do to avoid working with this man . . .."

Defendants first contend that plaintiff is ineligible for unemployment benefits under section 601A of "AN ACT in relation to a system of unemployment insurance" (the Unemployment Insurance Act) because he left work without good cause attributable to his employer. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 48, par. 431.) They note that various jurisdictions, including Illinois, have adopted a "reasonably prudent person" standard to determine whether "good cause" for leaving employment exists (Burke v. Board of Review (1985), 132 Ill. App. 3d 1094, 477 N.E.2d 1351; Gathering v. Review Board of Indiana, Employment Security Division (Ind. App. 1986), 495 N.E.2d 207; Meyer v. Skyline Mobile Homes (1979), 99 Idaho 754, 589 P.2d 89) and assert that plaintiff did not meet this standard. They also note that "good cause" to leave employment has been defined as such cause as results from circumstances producing real and substantial pressure to terminate employment and which would compel a reasonable man to act in the same manner. (Burke v. Board of Review (1985), 132 Ill. App. 3d 1094, 477 N.E.2d 1351.) They further note that whether an employee acts as a reasonable person is a factual determination for the administrative agency (Komarec v. Department of Labor (1986), 144 Ill. App. 3d 1105, 494 N.E.2d 1257) and that the function of a reviewing court is merely to determine whether the agency's decision is against the manifest weight of the evidence (Eastman Kodak Co. v. Fair Employment Practices Comm'n (1981), 86 Ill. 2d 60, 426 N.E.2d 877).

Defendants assert that the Board's determination that plaintiff left work without good cause is not against the manifest weight of the evidence. They cite cases holding that an employee who quits his job because of a conflict with co-workers does so without "good cause." (Larson v. Department of Economic Security (Minn. 1979), 281 N.W.2d 667; Green v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review (1953), 174 Pa. Super. 286, 101 A.2d 119; Employment Securities Comm'n v. Bryant (Wyo. 1985), 704 P.2d 1311.) From Larson, they conclude that plaintiff did not act as a reasonable employee and lacked good cause to leave because he failed to inform management of Hillaries' continuing harassment in order to allow it an opportunity to solve the problem between them. They also rely on this failure to argue that, even if plaintiff had good cause to leave, it was attributable to Hillaries, not Florence, since it did not know of the continuing harassment and was not given an opportunity to rectify the problem.

Next, defendants note that an employee must make reasonable efforts to resolve conflicts arising from his employment before he can be found to have left with "good cause" and thus be eligible for unemployment benefits. (Davis v. Board of Review (1984), 125 Ill. App. 3d 67, 465 N.E.2d 576; Jones v. Board of Review (1985), 136 Ill. App. 3d 64, 482 N.E.2d 1131; Employment Security Comm'n v. Bryant (Wyo. 1985), 704 P.2d 1311; Larson v. Department of Economic Security (Minn. 1979), 281 N.W.2d 667.) They assert that, in contrast to the plaintiffs in Davis and Jones, who took substantial steps to resolve their conflicts including telling management of their problems, the only step taken by plaintiff here was to quit. Defendants assert that plaintiff's failure to file a union grievance also requires a finding that he left without good cause attributable to Florence. They argue that an employee must first exhaust all alternatives less drastic than leaving before he may be found to have left with good cause. They conclude that allowing plaintiff unemployment benefits endorses an employee's leaving employment while ignoring established company and union procedures and defeats the purpose behind the Unemployment Insurance Act, i.e., to benefit only those who are faultless in becoming unemployed.

Plaintiff first responds that the standard of review applicable here is that where facts are undisputed, their legal effect becomes a question of law, the determination of which by the administrative agency does not bind a reviewing court. He asserts that, as a matter of law, when a claimant is assaulted and threatened by a co-worker and the employer refuses to rectify the problem despite numerous efforts by the employee to resolve the conflict, the employee has good cause attributable to the employer to leave work. Moreover, he asserts, the Board's finding that he did not file a union grievance is contrary to the manifest weight ...

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