Drunk and Disorderly?

Q: I wonder if you'd care to comment on the Connecticut Supreme Court's decision in the case of Tuxis Ohr's Fuel v. Administrator, Unemployment Compensation Act (SC 18791, decision released July 30, 2013).

That case involved a truck driver who'd had his commercial driver's license suspended for a year because he was caught driving under the influence of alcohol. He sued because he was fired on the ground that the suspension of his CDL meant he couldn't drive for them.

The state court ruled that he was entitled to unemployment compensation, because he'd been fired! Now, a guy who's fired for something not his fault is surely entitled to unemployment compensation. But a guy who's been fired for something that was his fault — and what can be more your fault than driving drunk? — how does that guy rate?

I really don't understand this decision at all? Is Connecticut saying that in their view it's OK to drive drunk? What kind of "message" does this send to our kids?

 

A: Oh, it's worse than you say.

At the time the fellow was picked up by the cops he blew better than 2 ½ times the legal limit into a breathalyzer. This guy wasn't just loaded, he was loaded for bear. The wonder to me is that he was even still able to exhale into the tester (the court record doesn't say if he needed artificial respiration to blow into the mouthpiece).

Still, the decision, in one of the oddities of our legal system, actually made sense, sort of. The thing was, this poor deprived-of-a-living man slipped handily through one of the cracks that so frequently pervades laws that were set by men and women who simply didn't anticipate the weird things that can come up in the real world that those laws are meant to regulate.

You see, Connecticut — like many states — won't support unemployment compensation to those who lose their jobs "for cause," as it were; who, that is, do something wrong that caused them to be fired. And, also like many states, it gives chapter and verse about the sorts of things that warrant firing and therefore disqualify you from collecting the money that's really earmarked for those who lose their jobs for other, non-fault-based reasons.

Drive loaded on the job? You're fired, period, and you don't get a dime of compensation. But drive loaded off the job? In Connecticut, at least, the law doesn't cover that situation.

What the law there does say is that if you hold a CDL and you're caught driving drunk in any setting whatever, you lose that CDL for a year. Well, you'd think if you were a legislator, that that's enough. I mean if you're a truck driver and your living depends on having a valid CDL, suspension of that CDL is going to get you off the road until it's reinstated, isn't it?

What the state legislators didn't consider was, suppose somebody is a truck driver and is also a full-time employee? He loses his CDL, he can no longer drive trucks legally, so he naturally gets fired. But the thing is, he didn't lose it because of what he did while on the job, but rather something he did on his time off.

Because of that loophole in the state's law, the matter of his eligibility for unemployment compensation became a kind of gray area. And the state Supreme Court ruled that this legislative shortcoming should be construed in the job-loser's favor.

Now, it wasn't a unanimous decision. Two judges ruled for the driver, one against him; and there's merit, too, in the lone dissent. (For the full decision, go to www.transportlaw.com, which offers both sides of the argument.)

But the majority considered that what the guy did on his own time, apart from his work, might well be against the law and might indeed have rendered him unable to perform his work, but wasn't legally a firing offense. Accordingly, it awarded him the same compensation he would have received if, for example, he'd simply been laid off because the company was downsizing.

I'd love to be able to tell you the Connecticut state Legislature is diligently closing this gap in the law, but I can't. Legislators are busy people with lots of new laws in mind. If this case gets lots of publicity there, maybe they'll act. Otherwise, maybe not; it's a rare case. Even so, the injustice does strike you, doesn't it?

Consultant, author and educator Colin Barrett is president of Barrett Transportation Consultants. Send your questions to him at 5201 Whippoorwill Lane, Johns Island, S.C. 29455; phone, 843-559-1277; e-mail, BarrettTrn@aol.com. Contact him to order the most recent 351-page compiled edition of past Q&A columns, published in 2010.

 

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