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What happens when the chips are downed.

Let me tell you about a big bag of Unemployment Compensation trouble which cumbered the courts a few years back.

Supposedly a K-Mart clerk snitched a bag of chips off the shelf and munched them. That's where the trouble started.

Because a supervisor saw her snack the chips, and fired her. Over a bag of chips?

Well, the other people who work in that store maybe had an inkling that there was more to it than that. Anyway, they let their feelings be known they didn't like it. It wasn't really worth a strike, to them; it was maybe worth half a strike. So that's what they did. They slowed their down work to a crawl. Here's where the supervisor opened his supervisor mouth and inserted his supervisor foot. Because he told the others that the reason she had been fired was for snitching chips. That's where the trouble got sticky.

Because the clerk had applied for Unemployment. Naturally, she got it. K-Mart appealed. They went to a hearing. Each side brought their evidence and their outrage. The hearings referee came down on the clerk's side. In fact, in the so-called "findings of fact", the referee flat out stated that the claimant "did not eat a bag of potato chips." K-Mart let it drop. That's where the trouble got serious.

Because now the clerk sued K-Mart for a bundle of money, on the grounds that the evil corporate giant had defamed her otherwise impeccable character by telling the other store clerks that she was (oh, horror!) a stinkin chip snitcher. Now listen to this: At the trial, the jury was not allowed to decide the truth about the chips, nor was the store allowed to present the evidence, as to whether she had actually snitched the chips. Why not? Because the judge decided that the truth about the chips had already been decided. By who? By the Unemployment Compensation referee! You see, there's a priciple in the law with the suitably unintelligible polysyllabic name of "collateral estoppel". It sounds like someone dropped the dishes. But it means that once the facts have already been decided in one court, you can't up and argue them all over again in another court. This is where the trouble became expensive.

Because the judge simply instructed the jury that it was already proven that the supervisor lied when he said she snitched the chips. So the jury awarded $90 grand for lost wages and $1.4 million for punitive damages. That seems fair enough, so far: you said I stole the chips, you don't get to prove it, now you pay me a mil and a half, just to get back at you. But wait, because here is where the trouble became a great waste of time.

In the majestic mystery and magic of our legal system, years and months dragged monotonously by. K-Mart had no joy. The clerk collected no check. Only their lawyers joyfully cashed in. K-Mart appealed to the superior court. A panel of the superior court upheld the trial court judge. More money. More time. More lawyers. K-Mart appealed again. Lengthy briefs (an oxymoron) were filed, oral arguments orated, learned jaws wagged, reverend heads ruminated. Here's the upshot: The superior court unanimously concluded collateral estoppel did not apply. After all, they said, in so many many words, the Unemployment people were up to something very different from what court people are up to. Unemployment compensation is looking to help people who are out of work. The court is looking to punish defamation. That put a pause to the affair. Collateral estoppel did not apply.

But is the trouble over? No. K-Mart bar the door. Because the Superior court sent the case back to the trial court for a new trial. In fact, there are still plenty more lawyer checks to cash, more months and years to haggle away, all because the Supe Said She's a Stinkin Chip Snitcher. See if you can say so six times swiftly

But, please, say it to yourself.

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