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Court Case

MDES & Ocean Springs School District v. James F. Harris

James Harris was a teacher at Ocean Springs High School.  He was fired for showing an “R” rated movie, Silence of the Lambs, to students in his class as a reward for hard work and because they needed a break.  The testimony at the Referee’s appellate hearing revealed that there was no written policy covering this situation.  But, the school principal had previously admonished Harris not to show movies to students without office approval and not to show any movies unrelated to the courses he taught.  

The issue for decision was whether Harris’ showing of the movie constituted an “error in judgement or discretion”, which would not constitute misconduct, or whether the evidence was sufficient for the Commission to find that Harris had willfully disregarded his employer’s interests and cautionary warnings, which would constitute misconduct.

The Mississippi Department of Employment Security initially found that Harris should not be entitled to unemployment benefits based on his separation.  This decision was affirmed by both the Appeals Referee and MDES Board of Review.  However, the decision was reversed by the Circuit Court of Jackson County, and Harris was awarded benefits.  The Supreme Court found that substantial evidence supported the Commission’s finding that Harris’ behavior constituted a willful disregard of the employer’s interests and warnings.  Therefore, the Circuit Court was reversed, and the decision of the Commission Referee and Board of Review reinstated. 

This case could have gone either way.  On the one hand, the record was clear that one of the primary reasons the school administrators fired Harris was that Harris had displayed a lack of good judgement, a quality they felt necessary for a teacher to possess in order to be entrusted to teach students.  Based on certain precedent cases, lack of good judgement usually will not be sufficient to disqualify a claimant from receipt of benefits.  The burden is on the employer to prove deliberate violations.  However, in this case, the decision turned in favor of affirming the Commission on the fact that Harris had been previously warned not to show films without prior approval and not to show films which were unrelated to the subjects he taught. 

How might this case affect you?  Let’s look at an example.  An employee is assigned to take a patient’s vital signs every 4 hours.  The employee is made aware that this is a requirement and not an option.  This employee takes the vitals at 8 AM and is supposed to again at 12 PM.  However, this employee simply looks in on the patient at 12 PM and the patient states he is fine.  The employee does not take the vitals.  When the next vitals are taken at 4 PM, they are way off from what they should be.  This employee’s poor judgement call, not taking the vitals at 12 PM, could have caused serious harm to the patient.  If terminated, this employee should be denied unemployment benefits.  Certain types of medication errors could also be considered errors in judgements; especially the types where pain medication is involved and is to be given as needed.  

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