Just What is “Just Cause?”
On March 21, 2017, the North Carolina Court of Appeals issued an unpublished opinion affirming a decision of the Office of Administrative Hearings that the Department of Social Services (“DSS”) lacked “just cause” under the North Carolina Human Resources Act for dismissal of an employee for unacceptable conduct. A DSS employee was terminated for making ex parte contact with a district court judge regarding a custody dispute involving the employee’s daughter’s boyfriend but unrelated to the employee’s work. DSS asserted that the “‘impermissible use of her position and personal contacts’ to influence the outcome of a private custody dispute led to her termination.”
The North Carolina Court of Appeals has articulated a three part test to determine whether just cause exists to discipline an employee based on unacceptable personal conduct: (1) whether the employee actually engaged in the conduct the employer alleges; (2) whether the employee’s conduct falls within one of the statutory categories of unacceptable personal conduct; and (3) whether the misconduct constitutes just cause for the disciplinary action taken. In determining whether just cause exists for the particular disciplinary action, the North Carolina Supreme Court has emphasized the following factors for consideration: the severity of the violation, the subject matter involved, the resulting harm, the [employee’s] work history or discipline imposed in other cases involving similar violations.
In v. Transylvania County Department of Social Services Director Tracey Jones, the Department dismissed the employee based on unacceptable personal conduct, and neither party challenged the ALJ’s findings that the employee engaged in the conduct alleged or that the conduct alleged falls within the category of unacceptable personal conduct. Instead, the only issue on appeal was whether the dismissal was just. The Court of Appeals found that the employee committed a severe violation by engaging in ex parte communications with a judge (with whom she had a personal relationship) presiding over her a personal child custody dispute, but that the conduct did not result in any harm beyond the reassignment of trial court judges. The Court of Appeals also found persuasive that this was the only incident of this unacceptable personal conduct by this employee in sixteen years of service, and that the Department failed to consider the employee’s work history and the extent and content of the communications. Based on a balancing of the factors, the Court affirmed the ALJ’s conclusion that the Department lacked just cause to terminate the employee.
Employers subject to the North Carolina State Human Resources Act should take care to consider all of the facts and circumstances surrounding an employee’s violation, along with the employee’s work history and prior violations, if any, before making a discipline decision. Not all conduct constituting unacceptable personal conduct will be just cause for dismissal, and employers should consider whether other, less severe discipline is appropriate when viewing the employee’s conduct and history as a whole. Ultimately, however, the reviewing office or court will make an independent determination regarding just cause, and the outcome may be difficult to predict.
If you have any questions please reach out to a member of our Employment Law team. We are happy to help you navigate these issues.