IL Supreme Court: State wrong to deny unemployment benefits to American Airlines worker fired for upgrading passenger

By Jonathan Bilyk | Feb 5, 2016

An American Airlines worker who was fired by the airline for helping a passenger secure a seating upgrade and some champagne for the flight has been cleared to collect unemployment benefits, after the Illinois Supreme Court found, since the worker did nothing illegal or obviously wrong, American Airlines’ lack of clear, written governing how to give passenger upgrades negated the airline’s claims it had the right to fire the worker for “misconduct.”

On Feb. 4, the state’s high court upheld the ruling of a Cook County judge in finding the Illinois Department of Employment Security had been wrong to deny Zlata Petrovic’s request for unemployment benefits.

The case centered on American Airlines’ decision in 2012 to fire Petrovic, a tower planner for the airline. According to court documents, Petrovic was terminated from her position after helping a passenger upgrade their seating on a flight.

According to the documents, Petrovic, who had been employed by American Airlines since 1988, was at work on New Year’s Day in 2012 when “a friend at another airline” called her and asked “whether she could do something for a passenger who was scheduled to fly on American.”

Petrovic then asked the catering department to supply a bottle of champagne for the passenger, and asked a flight attendant “whether it would be possible to upgrade the passenger.” The passenger then received the champagne and an upgrade to first class.

About three weeks later, Petrovic was fired “because she upgraded the passenger and requested the champagne without proper authorization,” ostensibly violating company rules regarding “misrepresentation of facts” and “dishonesty,” including “theft or pilferage of company property.”

She filed for unemployment benefits, but was denied by the IDES after the airline contested her application and argued she had been fired for “misconduct” for violating company rules, specifically saying she “left her work area without her manager’s approval to secure an undocumented upgrade for a friend of a friend.” The airline said her conduct “violated a reasonable and known policy.” The airline testified Petrovic’s actions cost the airline $7,100.

Petrovic countered by noting the company doesn’t have any written rules specifically forbidding her actions, or laying out a process by which employees could secure such passenger upgrades. And no one to whom she made the requests told her no, she said.

Petrovic appealed the IDES decision to Cook County Circuit Court, where the judge sided with her, saying Petrovic “could not have known that her requests for special treatment for a passenger were forbidden.”

IDES then appealed that decision, and the Illinois First District Appellate Court reversed the lower court’s decision, siding with IDES and the airline.

A unanimous Illinois Supreme Court, however, rejected the appellate court’s reasoning, saying, in the absence of conduct that either breaks the law or would obviously expose an employer to legal action, employers can’t fire workers and then seek to deny them unemployment benefits unless the employee has broken specific and clearly written rules defining specific instances of employee misconduct.

The justices said Illinois courts must come down “liberally” on the side of “awarding benefits to unemployed workers,” given the goal of the law establishing unemployment insurance, which they said “is aimed at alleviating the burdens” of involuntary unemployment.

In this case, the justices said at no time did American demonstrate Petrovic or other workers were aware of any policies forbidding her from seeking to help a passenger secure an upgrade, no matter if it purportedly cost the airline $7,100. And they said even “a rule prohibiting unauthorized employees from ‘issuing’ upgrades” wouldn’t apply in this case, as Petrovic had only asked other employees for the upgrades and did not either move the passenger to business class or bring the passenger champagne.

“Plaintiff cannot be disqualified from receiving benefits based on others’ conduct,” the justices said.

And the justices said, despite American’s assertions to the contrary, Petrovic did not commit “acts of misconduct that are so serious and so commonly accepted as wrong that employers need not have rules covering them.”

The justices said such a “commonsense exception” should only apply to acts which are “illegal or intentionally tortious” – conditions that don’t apply to this case.

“The employer failed to offer evidence of a rule or policy prohibiting an employee from requesting champagne or an informal upgrade for a passenger,” the justices wrote. “To the contrary, plaintiff testified that these types of special favors had been done for airline customers in the past. She testified that none of her coworkers informed her that they could not grant her requests. In fact, she was told that it would be ‘no problem’ …

“In the absence of a rule prohibiting her conduct, plaintiff could not reasonably have predicted that she would be fired as a result.”

Justice Anne M. Burke wrote the opinion, and Chief Justice Rita B. Garman and justices Charles E. Freeman, Robert R. Thomas, Thomas L. Kilbride, Lloyd A. Karmeier and Mary Jane Theis concurred.

Petrovic was represented by attorneys Martin Whittaker, Timothy Huizenga and Miriam Hallbauer, of LAF Chicago, formerly the Legal Assistance Foundation.

IDES was represented by the Illinois Attorney General’s office.

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Organizations in this Story

American Airlines Illinois Attorney General Illinois First District Appellate Court Illinois Supreme Court LAF Legal Assistance Foundation

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