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Jackson-George Regional Library System v. Mississippi Department of Employment Security

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

September 12, 2017

JACKSON-GEORGE REGIONAL LIBRARY SYSTEM APPELLANT
v.
MISSISSIPPI DEPARTMENT OF EMPLOYMENT SECURITY APPELLEE

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 07/11/2016

         COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: JACKSON COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, HON. ROBERT P. KREBS JUDGE

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: STACIE ELIZABETH ZORN

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: ALBERT B. WHITE ANNA CRAIN CLEMMER

          BEFORE IRVING, P.J., ISHEE AND GREENLEE, JJ.

          ISHEE, J.

         ¶1. Johnell Fowler was terminated by the Jackson-George Regional Library System (JGRLS) after posting a compromising photo of a library patron in violation of JGRLS's confidentiality policy. Fowler's claim for unemployment benefits was initially denied by the claims examiner on the basis of employee misconduct. On appeal before an administrative law judge (ALJ), however, the claim examiner's findings were reversed, and benefits were awarded. JGRLS appealed the ALJ's decision to the Mississippi Department of Employment Security's (MDES) Board of Review (the Board), which adopted and affirmed the ALJ's findings and conclusions. Aggrieved, JGRLS then appealed to the Jackson County Circuit Court, which affirmed the Board's decision. JGRLS now seeks relief from this Court. We reverse and render.

         STATEMENT OF FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2. Fowler was employed as a clerk by the St. Martin Library, a branch of the JGRLS, for roughly seven years and five months. Fowler was terminated on September 22, 2014, and filed for unemployment benefits on September 30, 2014.

         ¶3. At the time of Fowler's termination, Fowler was on a six-month probationary period implemented in June 2014. Fowler's notice of probation stated that if any further disciplinary incidents or insubordination occurred while she was on probation, Fowler would be subject to immediate disciplinary action including, but not limited to, suspension without pay or termination. The infractions leading to Fowler's probation, however, were excluded from the ALJ's scope of investigation because, according to JGRLS, Fowler's final incident was allegedly enough to warrant immediate termination.

         ¶4. Sometime after the initiation of her probationary period, Fowler posted a compromising photograph of a St. Martin library patron on Facebook. The photo depicted the patron sitting at a library computer with her underwear exposed, which Fowler captioned as "St. Martin's finest." Lori Barnes, director of the JGRLS, became aware of Fowler's photo, and on September 22, 2014, issued to Fowler a letter of termination. Pursuant to her role as JGRLS's director, Barnes possessed the sole authority to terminate JGRLS employees for cause. Barnes stated in Fowler's termination letter that Fowler's posting of the photo violated JGRLS's "confidentiality policy, " which, in its entirety, read: "Maintain strict confidentiality of all customer information. Never discuss customers with other employees in public areas." The confidentiality policy, however, did not articulate the punishment for a violation thereof. Barnes, in her letter, wrote that she could not fathom a more textbook violation of the policy, and thus, terminated Fowler immediately.

         ¶5. As a result, Fowler filed for unemployment benefits on September 30, 2014, which a claims examiner initially denied on the basis that Fowler was found to have violated JGRLS's confidentiality policy. Fowler appealed to an ALJ. The ALJ conducted a telephonic hearing on December 5, 2014, wherein Fowler and Barnes testified as to Fowler's termination, among other things. In light of the testimony presented at the hearing, the ALJ reversed the findings of the claim examiner, and awarded Fowler benefits. The ALJ made clear the "decision [was] rendered on a credibility basis, " and that the best-available evidence revealed JGRLS's confidentiality policy was not uniformly applied.

         ¶6. Aggrieved, JGRLS appealed to the Board. The Board affirmed the ALJ, thereby adopting the ALJ's findings and conclusions. JGRLS then appealed to the Jackson County Circuit Court. The circuit court affirmed the Board, which affirmed the ALJ's finding that substantial evidence existed supporting the conclusion that JGRLS did not uniformly enforce its rules and policies. JGRLS now appeals to this Court, arguing that the Board's ruling was not supported by substantial evidence, and therefore, was arbitrary and capricious.

         STANDARD ...


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