Thomas A. Robinson on Employee Misconduct and Workers' Compensation: Brackett v. Focus Hope, Inc.

Thomas A. Robinson notes that cases involving statutory misconduct are relatively rare. One reason is that only about one-third of American jurisdictions have such disqualifying statutes. Even within those jurisdictions, because Commissions and courts are reluctant to order a disqualification for a simple violation of policy on the part of the injured employee despite clear statutory authority to do so, one usually sees a decision striking down a worker's disability benefits only when there has been a clear departure from the work rules, e.g., a worker ignores a safety concern after having been repeatedly warned not to do so, or an employee is clearly told not to use the specialized tools of a nearby worker when the former has received no training.
 A recent case from Michigan, Brackett v. Focus Hope, Inc., 753 N.W.2d 207, 2008 Mich. LEXIS 1442 (July 30, 2008), provides a completely different context for judging the misconduct of an employee. In this article Thomas Robinson analyzes statutory misconduct in the workers' compensation context and the Michigan Supreme Court's decision in Brackett. The case is an important decision because it represents a case not in which the employee performed her job in an unsafe manner, but in which her will and that of her employer were in direct conflict.
Robinson first examines the factual and procedural background of Brackett and then discusses the Supreme Court’s decision. He then delves into the subject of misconduct generally, noting that misconduct is generally irrelevant in workers’ compensation claims. “One of the core principles in the workers' compensation scheme of providing medical care and disability benefits to injured workers is that misconduct, on the part of either the employer or the employee, is ordinarily not an issue. The employee need not show any level of fault on the part of the employer in order to be entitled to an award. Likewise, any degree of employee fault is usually irrelevant.”
Robinson discusses the states, and the relevant statutes, in which willful misconduct is a possible defense to a worker’s compensation claim. He then notes that a number of states would have reached the same result under a completely different theory, namely, in a growing number of states, coverage for emotional injuries that result from bona fide personnel actions undertaken by the employer is excluded. Robinson concludes that the test employed by the majority of the Michigan court is a reasonable balancing of the important issues at stake in these "battle of the will" disputes between employer and employee.
To read Robinson's additional comments and practice points on this topic, see his expert commentary article.