MN Supreme Court: Misstatement on job application grounds for denying unemployment benefits

A divided Minnesota Supreme Court ruled today that providing untrue information on an employment application can exclude you from unemployment benefits if you subsequently lose your job.

The court overturned a Minnesota Court of Appeals decision in the case of Nina Wilson, who indicated on a job application for a mortage services company in 2014 that she completed high school via a GED. She was fired five months later when a background check did not find any evidence she completed school.

The company said it fired her because “it’s an integrity and character issue.”

In Minnesota, employee misconduct is grounds for a denial of unemployment benefits. But the Court of Appeals said under its definition of employee misconduct, the company was required to show that it would not have hired Wilson had it known the truth. That definition is a mistake, Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea wrote in today’s opinion.

“A misrepresentation is employment misconduct when it clearly displays a ‘serious violation’ of the behavior an employer has the right to reasonably expect,” she said.

When she misrepresented her educational qualifications, Wilson seriously violated a standard of behavior that a reasonable employer has the right to expect. Wilson’s conduct was “intentional.” The job application requested information about Wilson’s education, including information about her high school education, and Wilson did not respond truthfully. The ULJ, based on the evidence he received and his credibility determinations, found that Wilson falsified her education level in two respects—the highest grade she completed and the receipt of a GED. The ULJ found that Wilson knew these two statements were false and that she “intentionally falsified her education level.” Sufficient evidence in the record supports these findings.

Gildea said she considered the misconduct as “serious” because Minnesota has always placed an importance on education.

In a dissent, however, Justice Margaret Chutich said the misconduct was not serious because the company’s job requirements specified a “2 or 4 year undergraduate degree” or “equivalent experience.”

Chutich said the company knew Wilson didn’t meet the educational requirements of the job, but hired her on the experience she had.

Wilson’s actual work experience demonstrates that she had the ability to perform the particular position even without the requisite college degree. Her misstatement about her education did not bear on her ability to do the job, which is an important consideration in weighing whether the misstatement was a “serious violation” under Minnesota’s unemployment-compensation laws.

Second, the record shows that Wilson did not try to deceive MRC into believing that she had the educational qualifications that the employer required for the position. The position statement specifying education required a “2 or 4 year undergraduate degree,” which is, at a minimum, two years of education and a college degree beyond the GED that Wilson inaccurately listed. Accordingly, Wilson’s prospective employer knew that Wilson did not have the educational level that it sought and that she did not qualify for the job based solely on her education. Given her insufficient educational level, her misstatement
did not prevent her future employer from questioning her ability to perform the particular job, making the misstatement less serious than those statements that attest to the position’s required qualifications.

Chutich, joined in her dissent by Justices David Lillehaug and Natalie Hudson, said the company had grounds to fire Wilson, but her unemployment benefits shouldn’t be lost on the basis of the definition of “employee misconduct.”