On Appeal from the District Court of the Virgin Islands (Division of St. Croix) No. 98-cv-00218 District Judge: Hon. Anne E. Thompson.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Roth, Circuit Judge
Argued on December 11, 2007
Before: SCIRICA*fn1, Chief Judge, SMITH and ROTH, Circuit Judges
Joel Gonzalez appeals the order of the District Court of the Virgin Islands, granting summary judgment against him. We hold that the District Court erred in concluding that a prior holding by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) in Gonzalez's unemployment compensation proceedings precluded litigation of Gonzalez's claim that he was wrongfully discharged. Accordingly, we will vacate the District Court's grant of summary judgment with respect to Gonzalez's wrongful discharge claim and remand this claim to the District Court. We will affirm the District Court's judgment in all other respects.
I. Factual and Procedural Background
Prior to his discharge, Joel Gonzalez was employed as a station agent in St. Croix by Executive Airlines, Inc. (a subsidiary of AMR), doing business as American Eagle. On May 20, 1998, Gonzalez collected four twenty-dollar bills from a passenger for a ticket change fee. The fee was only $75, and Gonzalez gave change to the passenger from his own pocket. Gonzalez claims that he placed the $80 in a drawer by the boarding gate. The $75 payment was not recorded in American Eagle's computer system.
When the passenger complained that he was charged the ticket change fee a second time upon his return to St. Croix on May 25, Gonzalez remembered the earlier transaction. On May 26, Gonzalez asked his co-worker to look in the drawer by the boarding gate. His co-worker found $80, in three bills, one fifty, one twenty, and one ten. American Eagle suspended Gonzalez on May 27 while it investigated the incident. On June 12, 1998, Gonzalez was terminated on the ground that he had violated the American Eagle Executive Airline Rules and Regulations.
Gonzalez filed a claim for unemployment compensation with the Virgin Islands Employment Security Agency (VIESA). Section 304(b)(3) of the Virgin Islands Unemployment Insurance Act provides in part that an insured employee is entitled to unemployment benefits unless he was discharged for "misconduct." V.I. Code Ann., tit. 24, § 304(b)(3) (1997). Although the statute does not define the term "misconduct," case law has defined it as:
[A]n act of wanton or willful disregard of an employer's interests, a deliberate violation of the employer's rules, a disregard for the standards of behavior which an employer has a right to expect from an employee, or negligence indicating an intentional disregard of the employer's interest or of [the] employee's duties and obligations to the employer.
Charles v. The Daily News Publishing Co., 29 V.I. 34, 36 (Terr. Ct. 1994) (citing Jackman v. Heyliger, 20 V.I. 536, 538-39 (D.V.I. 1984)).
VIESA denied Gonzalez's claim pursuant to Section 304(b)(3). Gonzalez appealed, and a hearing was conducted by a VIESA Administrative Law Judge. Gonzalez was represented by counsel at the hearing.
The ALJ affirmed the initial determination that Gonzalez was ineligible for unemployment benefits under Section 304(b)(3). The ALJ characterized Gonzalez's actions as "contrary to stated procedures and highly questionable." The ALJ made the following findings: that the collection of funds at the boarding gate was not unusual; that, although Gonzalez claimed he was too busy to record the transaction at the boarding gate, he was able to enter the passenger's name on the stand-by list; that the money retrieved from the boarding gate was in different denominations than the money collected from the passenger; and that the boarding gate was a heavily trafficked area. The ALJ cited the interpretation of "misconduct" under Section 304 and concluded,
The failure of the Claimant [Gonzalez] to document the Administrative Service Charge as well as to ask his supervisor to not inform the general manager of this failure are in strict violation of the Employer's interests and a disregard for standards of expected behavior. The employee's duties are deemed, at ...