When employers discipline employees, they often instruct the disciplined employee to acknowledge, in writing, receipt of any disciplinary form. Often, employees are very upset about the discipline and refuse to sign the document. A recent Wisconsin Court of Appeals decision presents a cautionary tale for employees in this situation.

In Kierstead v. Labor and Industry Review Comm., No. 2011AP938, the Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision and upheld the decision of the Labor and Industry Review Commission finding the employee, Ryan Kierstead, ineligible for unemployment insurance benefits. Kierstead had been disciplined by his employer two times within a one month period. After the second incident, Kierstead’s supervisor presented him with a disciplinary warning notice and instructed Kierstead to sign the document, acknowledging his receipt and review. Kierstead refused to sign the document because he disagreed with the warning. Ultimately, the company’s general manager told Kierstead that he would be fired if he did not sign the warning. Kierstead refused and, as promised, he was terminated.

An administrative law judge and the Labor and Industry Review Commission found Kierstead ineligible for benefits, concluding that his refusal to sign the disciplinary warning comprised a voluntary termination of his employment, making him ineligible under Wis. Stat. § 108.04(7)(a). In upholding the Commission’s decision, the Court distinguished situations where the disciplined employee’s signature would serve as an admission of the conduct at issue from those situations in which the employee was merely acknowledging receipt and review of the document. In the latter situation, a refusal to sign and subsequent dismissal is a “voluntary termination” of employment without good cause attributable to the employer. The Court clarified that a mistaken belief that signature would amount to an admission – leading to dismissal – constitutes good cause attributable to the employer under Wis. Stat. § 108.04(7)(b).

A disputed claim for unemployment insurance benefits presents a stressful situation for dismissed employees. If you have been denied unemployment benefits, a Hawks Quindel, S.C., employment attorney can assist you with the appeal process.

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Nicholas Fairweather