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Alston v. Mississippi Department of Employment Security

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

November 28, 2017


          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 08/26/2016




En Banc

          BARNES, J.

         ¶1. Jason Alston, appearing pro se, appeals the decision of the Circuit Court of Attala County, which affirmed the decision of the Board of Review (Board) of the Mississippi Department of Employment Security (MDES) denying him unemployment benefits. The Board adopted the MDES administrative law judge's (ALJ) determination that Alston voluntarily left his employment without good cause. Finding there was substantial evidence to support the Board's decision, we affirm.


         ¶2. Alston had been employed with the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) as a Maintenance Tech II from September 1, 2012, to October 26, 2015, first in Pearl, Mississippi, and then in Kosciusko, Mississippi, where he resigned from his job. Alston claims he was forced to resign due to workplace harassment by his coworkers and supervisors. He cites several incidents to support his claim. Alston also received several work-related reprimands and was ultimately suspended from work for four days. When Alston returned to work, he informed his supervisor that he was leaving for another job. Alston then applied for unemployment benefits, claiming he was constructively discharged due to a hostile work environment.

         ¶3. MDES denied Alston's claim. Alston appealed. After a hearing, an MDES ALJ determined that he had not been subject to a hostile work environment, but had quit voluntarily, and failed to show good cause in doing so. Alston appealed to the Board, which adopted the ALJ's findings. Alston then appealed to the circuit court, which affirmed the Board's decision.

         ¶4. At the hearing before the ALJ, the attorney for MDOT, Joe Goff, had two witnesses testify - Marty Price, maintenance-operations manager and Alston's direct supervisor, and Greg Franklin, MDOT's district human-resources manager. Alston had no witnesses other than himself.

         ¶5. Alston claimed he gave his employer notice that he was quitting due to a hostile work environment, which began on January 8, 2015. On that date, he inadvertently put the wrong fuel in an MDOT diesel truck. He claimed a coworker forced him to siphon gas out of the tank by mouth or receive a written reprimand. He siphoned the gas by mouth, subsequently became sick, and went to the ER. Alston did not report his illness for workers'-compensation purposes until approximately one week later. Price, however, testified that Alston was given the option by their mechanic of dropping the tank and draining it, or siphoning the gas.

         ¶6. Additionally, in April 2015, Alston claimed Morgan Henry, a local maintenance supervisor, started a rumor among other employees that Alston had HIV. This incident arose when Alston asked Henry for time off to go to a physician for symptoms he received from his girlfriend. Upon his return, coworkers said he had HIV. Alston denied discussing with any coworkers that he may have a sexually transmitted disease. Alston then filed a grievance against Henry.

         ¶7. Another incident occurred in July 2015, when Keith Mangrum, a coworker, killed a water moccasin on the job and threw it in the back of Alston's work truck. Alston asked Mangrum to remove it because he was terrified of snakes, and he could not finish his work assignment because his equipment was in the back of the truck with the dead snake. Alston, though, admitted the incident was eventually addressed. Human resources was notified, and Price and Goff offered to transfer Mangrum to another district. Alston agreed, and Mangrum was transferred.

         ¶8. Alston testified to other more-minor incidents with Mangrum before he was transferred for the snake incident. In March 2015, Alston claimed Mangrum intentionally jerked Alston's steering wheel, causing Alston to spill his coffee on his lap. Alston requested a transfer to another district but stated Henry asked him to stay. The next day, on March 5, 2015, Alston filed grievances against Henry, Price, and Mangrum.[1] Price testified he spoke to Mangrum about "horseplay." Alston also alleged that Mangrum encouraged another coworker to ram an MDOT tractor into Alston's MDOT truck. The coworker refused, but Alston called Price and reported the incident. Price and Henry immediately came to the scene and investigated. Price testified about the incident, explaining Mangrum's comment was not intentional, but a miscommunication.

         ¶9. Further, in May 2015, Alston stated another employee tried to start a fight with him; so he filed a grievance against him. Both Price and Goff investigated the incident by interviewing both parties, as well as a witness, but the witness and alleged instigator denied Alston's accusations. Alston admitted that steps were taken to resolve the issues between the two men.

         ¶10. Alston explained he had "no issue" with his job at MDOT until he transferred districts, from Pearl to Kosciusko, in August 2014. Alston testified that he filed his complaints and grievances against his supervisors and coworkers according to the employee handbook, but claimed none of the incidents were "handled." Therefore, in June 2015, he filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charge of discrimination based on race and disability, claiming harassment by white coworkers. In July 2015, he filed another EEOC charge, claiming employer retaliation due to his first claim. He stated that since his first filing he had "been consistently written up for violations that were not [his] fault."

         ¶11. Between the time of the two EEOC filings, however, Alston was admitted to St. Dominic Behavior Health hospital for four days, from June 30, 2015, until July 2, 2015. He testified that workplace retaliations had caused him to have a nervous breakdown and "forced [him] to quit" (although he quit approximately three months later). Alston's diagnosis was depression and psychosis. He claimed counselors at St. Dominic told him to return to work and "deal with his problems head on; people were going to pick and mess with him daily." He was off work for three weeks, but did not provide MDOT with any records regarding his hospitalization.

         ¶12. A hand-delivered letter to Alston dated September 25, 2015, from MDOT's executive director, entitled "Disciplinary Action Notice, " was entered into evidence. It summarized four Group II offenses against Alston that required a written reprimand. In May 2013, Alston received a reprimand for violating safety rules. In June 2015, Alston received two written reprimands for insubordination.[2] In early June 2015, he received a written reprimand for "speeding and operating a state vehicle in an unsafe manner placing other employees in a life threatening situation." On June 19, 2015, Alston received a written reprimand for improper placement of highway "mowers ahead" warning signs on three different days.[3]Finally, the letter detailed the circumstances of September 9, 2015, when Alston again improperly placed warning signs on the wrong side of a highway, endangering mowers and resulting in another insubordination offense. Additionally, but not documented in the notice, in September 2015, Alston was issued a reprimand for failing to follow a directive by Price instructing employees not to use cell phones at work except as necessary. Alston acknowledged at the hearing that, according to the employee handbook, two Group II offenses per year entitled MDOT to discipline him up to discharge; however, he was only suspended from work without pay from September 29 through October 5, 2015. Alston claimed to have sent the Mississippi Employee Appeals Board a letter appealing his suspension, but it was never received, and he never contacted MDOT about an appeal.

         ¶13. Alston told Price he had started looking for another job around the time of his suspension, but it is unclear whether Alston returned to work after his suspension. On October 19, 2015, Alston stated he called Price and asked for time off work in order to take a drug test, and if he passed the test he was going to start work at Prairie Farms Dairy immediately. Price told Alston he needed to complete MDOT's exit forms. Alston denied that, as Price claims, he signed the forms that day and noted the "reason(s) for voluntary resignation" was "to accept another position (ready & ...

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