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COURT CASE:

CITY OF CLARKSDALE, MS V. THEODORE HAWKINS & MDES

Theodore Hawkins was hired as a police officer by the City of Clarksdale.  At the time of his initial hire, Hawkins passed a physical fitness test administered by the City of Clarksdale, which was substantially the same test as that required to be passed by the MS Law Enforcement Training Academy (MLEOTA).  State law mandates that within 1 year of initial hire, all persons hired as a full-time law enforcement officer by any municipality must pass the training regimen, both physical and academic, administered by MLEOTA.   Approximately eleven months after hire, Hawkins began his training course at the Law Enforcement Training Center to become certified as a Law Enforcement Officer as required by state law.  He passed the academic portion of the training, but on three separate occasions failed to reach the minimum physical training standards required by the Academy to become certified as a police officer. 

The City of Clarksdale determined that Hawkins could no longer be employed under state law as a police officer because of his failure to pass the physical fitness element of the State Certification Requirements.  Therefore, Hawkins was terminated from his employment with the police department.  He subsequently applied for Unemployment Benefits with the Mississippi Department of Employment Security and was awarded benefits. This decision was affirmed by the Circuit Court of Coahoma County. However, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the decision, and denied benefits.

The core of the case was whether Hawkins’ failure to achieve the required level of physical fitness, of which he had ample notice, constituted misconduct.  The Court placed heavy emphasis on the testimony of employer witnesses who established that prior to entering the Academy, all police officers were informed that they must successfully complete all phases of training at the Academy to become certified.  Further, two months prior to starting the Academy, Hawkins was given the opportunity and encouraged to participate in physical conditioning with other members of the Department and also scheduled to attend the same training.  He refused to participate in the training.  Additionally, while at the Academy, he would not participate in extra conditioning offered.  At times he would complete the required runs, but on other occasion, he would drop out.  When he was being timed for the test, he would drop out and walk rather than run.

The Supreme Court held that Hawkins had ample opportunity to improve his physical conditioning, his physical conditioning was uniquely within his control, and that he knew that his employer would be unable to continue to employ him under state law if he failed the physical aspect of the training.  They reasoned that his inaction leading to his failure constituted a willful and wanton disregard of his employer’s interest and a disregard of the standard of behavior which his employer had the right to expect from him.  As such, his failure to become certified constituted misconduct. 

The Court stated that it is the intent of the unemployment laws to benefit only those persons who are involuntarily unemployed through no fault of their own.  They reasoned that whether Hawkins passed the physical fitness test was within his control, and thus his failure was misconduct as a matter of law.  Based on this case, the MDES would have the authority to examine the volition and control aspect of alleged misconduct to determine whether the claimant is unemployed through no fault of his own.  Ineptitude or inability will continue not to constitute misconduct, but a willful or volitional failure to achieve will constitute misconduct. 

Let’s cover an example that may be specific to the medical field.  Once a CNA has completed their training class, that individual must pass a certification exam within a certain time period.  If they do not pass the exam, they can not be kept in that position. If that person is taking all the study classes offered, takes the tests on a timely basis, and is doing all they can to pass the exam, but still fails, and is terminated, that employee would qualify to receive unemployment benefits.  However, if that same employee does not take all the steps, such as study classes, and waits until the last possible time to take the test and fails it, then they would face denial of benefits.  Another example is that of an employee who has to have a license, such as a RN, but fails to keep their license current even after having been advised of the requirements to do so.  If that employee was aware of the requirements, but still did not do what was within their control, renewing the license, that employee would face disqualification from receiving benefits.    

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