In Tameka Gladney v. Mississippi Department of Employment Security, the Mississippi Court of Appeals reinstated a teacher assistant’s unemployment benefits finding that the district had been less than fair to her. At the end of the 2012 school year, the school principal in Aberdeen, Mississippi, announced to the teacher’s assistants that she needed to lay off two people because of a lack of funds. She asked for volunteers and Tameka Gladney was one of the volunteers. The principal told Ms. Gladney to send the district a letter stating that she would not return the next year due to a lack of funds in the district.

Before sending the letter, Ms. Gladney specifically asked if writing the letter would make it look like she was voluntarily leaving her job. The principal told her no and thanked her for volunteering. Ms. Gladney then submitted her letter that announced that she was leaving due to lack of funds and was returning to college the next year.

The next day, the principal decided that due to some of the “drama” in allowing employees to volunteer, she would just pick the two employees for the reduction in force. She did not pick Ms. Gladney and did not ask or tell Ms. Gladney to withdraw her letter. After Ms. Gladney left the school district and filed for unemployment benefits, the school district stated that the separation was due to a “RIF/lack of work.” Shortly after that, however, the school district changed its mind and challenged her claim. The Mississippi Department of Employment Security (MDES) claims examiner denied benefits finding that Ms. Gladney had voluntarily quit without good cause and ordered her to repay the benefits she had already received. An administrative law judge, the MDES Board of Review, and the Monroe County Circuit Court all affirmed the claims examiner’s decision to deny the benefits and Ms. Gladney appeal.

The Court of Appeals held that MDES’s finding that Ms. Gladney voluntarily quit her job without good cause was not supported by substantial evidence. The court found that it was undisputed that Ms. Gladney volunteered to be part of the reduction in force and that the school district accepted her letter stating that she would not return due to lack of funds in the district. By the time the principal changed her mind on accepting volunteers, the school district had already accepted Ms. Gladney’s resignation letter. Ms. Gladney remained under the impression that she was part of the RIF and this impression was confirmed by the district’s initial response to her claim for benefits.

“we liken the school district’s actions to a ‘bait and switch’ for which Gladney should not be penalized. Gladney was led to believe she was part of the RIF once she turned in her letter. She was never told her letter was rejected or asked to withdraw the letter.”

Without substantial evidence to support the MDES decision, the court reversed the lower decision, ordered the repayment of the past benefits, and reinstated her benefits going forward.

This decision is a good example of why it is essential to stick to a plan when implementing a reduction in force. The principal’s change in the procedure, from taking volunteers to selecting the candidates herself, at the least caused confusion and at worst was seen as arbitrary. Employers should also make sure that all clerks responding to unemployment claims are on the same page as the decision-makers. The clerk’s affirmation of Ms. Gladney’s belief that her termination was involuntary was an essential part of the court’s decision. If engaging in a reduction in force, be sure that any representations afterwards are consistent.