New definition of ‘misconduct’ to assist Oklahoma employers in challenging unemployment claims

The Oklahoma Legislature recently enacted changes regarding the ability of a discharged employee to obtain unemployment benefits and The Oklahoman asked McAfee & Taft employment lawyer Michael Lauderdale to explain the changes and what it means for Oklahoma employers.

“Starting on Nov. 1, Oklahoma employees who file for unemployment after being terminated for cause will have significantly more difficulty qualifying for benefits due to a recent statutory amendment which provides a new legal definition of ‘misconduct’,” Lauderdale told The Oklahoman.

Under the prior law, he explained, Oklahoma employers could challenge unemployment claims in situations where the employee was terminated for cause, but proving such misconduct was difficult because the term “misconduct” was not defined by the Legislature.

“Accordingly, the courts crafted their own definition which placed a high burden upon the employer to meet in order to disqualify employees from receiving benefits even where the separation from employment was for cause,” Lauderdale said. “Basically, in order to prove ‘misconduct,’ an employer was required to show that the reason for separation was an intentional or deliberate violation or disregard of standards of behavior or a high level of carelessness or negligence.”

With the new statutory definition of misconduct, it is now much easier for employers to defeat an employee’s claim for unemployment benefits where an employee has been separated for cause.

“However, an employer still has the burden to prove the employee engaged in misconduct,” he said. “Employers should be diligent in formulating and publishing their workplace policies to conform with this new law and, as always, properly document employee misconduct.”