In a recent decision, the Federal District Court for Idaho found that a grocery store employee who took a stale cake and shared it with her coworkers was properly denied COBRA for her “gross misconduct.” (The decision does not say, but we assume “gross” does not refer to the quality of the stale cake.)
The employee alleged that she had been terminated because she was a woman, but the court disagreed finding no substantial evidence that the alleged basis for her termination was a pretext for gender discrimination.
Instead, the court said that she was terminated for “theft and dishonesty” in violation of company policy. With regard to the claim that her termination was not for gross misconduct, the Court said:
Stealing from and/or lying to one’s employer, regardless of the value of the item, constitutes a willful and intentional disregard for the interests of one’s employer and is properly considered “gross misconduct” under COBRA….Ms. Mayes has made allegations that she should not have been fired for theft because she had permission to take cakes from the bakery and allegations regarding WinCo’s investigation….Whether or not Ms. Mayes had permission to use the cakes as she did or the taking of cakes was a commonly accepted practice is disputed. Regardless, WinCo’s written policy, which Ms. Mayes agreed to, is clear and provides that theft and/or dishonesty are considered gross misconduct.
There are relatively few cases involving gross misconduct, so each one is a helpful data point. Even so, whether the grounds are gross misconduct is a very fact-specific inquiry. Employers should be careful in trying to rely on gross misconduct as a basis for denying COBRA and consult counsel to make sure their basis is as solid as it can be in this relatively undeveloped area.
As for employees, perhaps it is better (to butcher a line from The Godfather) to leave the cake, and take COBRA.