Appeals court clarifies employee quit-for-cause analysis in
unemployment insurance case
If an employee refuses to sign a disciplinary form believing that
signing the form is tantamount to an admission of guilt, the
employee will be entitled to unemployment insurance benefits. If an
employee refuses to sign without that belief, and is fired,
unemployment insurance is not available.
By Joe Forward, Legal Writer,
State Bar of Wisconsin
April 6, 2012 – An employee who voluntarily quits a job does not
qualify to receive unemployment insurance benefits, unless the employee
quits for good cause attributable to the employer. Recently, a
state appeals court clarified the quit-for-cause analysis in
certain cases involving disciplinary warnings.
The Labor and Industry Review Commission ruled that Ryan Kierstead voluntarily terminated (quit) his
position at Sterling Water, Inc. when he refused to sign a disciplinary
warning notice acknowledging a complaint was filed against him and was
told he would be fired if he did not.
The form did not say that signing it would be an admission of
wrongdoing. Kierstead did not testify that he thought
signing would be an admission of guilt; he said he refused to sign
because he did not believe Sterling would fire him. He thought his
manager was bluffing.
A circuit court reversed the LIRC decision, concluding that Kierstead
did not voluntarily quit and was entitled to receive unemployment
benefits because of the discharge.
But in Kierstead
v. LIRC, 2011AP938 (April 3, 2012), the District III Wisconsin
Court of Appeals reversed the circuit court, concluding that Kierstead
was not entitled to benefits.
Along the way, the appeals court clarified the proper analysis when
disciplinary forms and “voluntary termination” claims are at
issue. The court explained that failing to sign an employee disciplinary
form does not always amount to a “quit without good
“This situation always requires a good cause inquiry into whether
the employee knew signing would not be an admission,” wrote Judge
Michael Hoover, adopting LIRC’s suggested analysis.
The appeals court noted that LIRC has developed
“inconsistent” and “irreconcilable” outcomes in
previous cases involving similar situations.
That is, some cases found a quit for good cause attributable to the
employer when the employee refused to sign a disciplinary form believing
that a signature may constitute an admission of guilt. In other cases,
LIRC found a quit without good cause regardless of whether the employee
believed signing it would be an admission of wrongdoing.
“We reject Kierstead’s contention that it is improper or
unnecessary for employers to obtain a signature on a disciplinary
warning document as a record that the employee was in fact presented
with, and had an opportunity to dispute, allegations of unsatisfactory
performance or conduct,” Judge Hoover wrote. “It would be
similarly unreasonable to penalize employees who mistakenly believe they
are being compelled to incriminate themselves.”
The court ruled that Kierstead’s refusal was a voluntary
termination under Wis. Stat. section 108.04(7)(a),
even though he was fired, because he refused to sign the disciplinary
form knowing that termination could result. The employer was not
In addition, the court ruled that Kierstead’s refusal to sign was
not justified because he did not indicate a belief that signing was an
admission of the wrongdoing alleged against him in the disciplinary
warning notice. He said he didn’t sign because he didn’t
believe he would be fired.