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'Fountain Lady' Saga Teaches Lesson in Unemployment Benefit Law

You may recall the young woman who became an Internet sensation last summer when video of her romp through a fountain at a Kansas City Royals game was posted on YouTube. Jessica McCoy, who is from Iowa, attended the game while on vacation. For reasons unknown (more on that below), she hopped in and sloshed through the waist-high pool—holding her drink up in the air—as the crowd cheered. 

But the security officers who chased after her, and then chased after her again after she escaped from handcuffs and jumped back into the fountain, did not cheer. McCoy was charged with trespassing, resisting arrest, and soliciting a police officer.
McCoy’s employer, First American Bank in Beaverdale (a Des Moines suburb), did not cheer either. By the time McCoy returned to work the next week, video and news stories about the “Fountain Lady” frolic had gone viral. The bank fired McCoy, a financial services representative, for violating a company policy that prohibits off-duty conduct that reflects poorly on the bank or causes management to lose faith in the employee.   
McCoy filed for unemployment benefits. During a hearing in October, the administrative law judge asked her why she was in the fountain. “I was under the influence of alcohol,” McCoy answered. Not satisfied with the response, the judge pressed on, “And you were in the fountain because . . . ?” “And I just honestly can’t answer that,” McCoy explained, “It just at the time seemed like a fun idea.”
The judge awarded McCoy unemployment benefits. The judge ruled that McCoy’s “off-duty, on-vacation-in-another-state conduct, while certainly questionable on many levels, does not rise to the level of substantial, job-related misconduct sufficient to warrant a denial of unemployment benefits.”
The outcome likely would have been different if McCoy had worked in Kansas rather than Iowa. Under Kansas law, like Iowa law, an employee is disqualified for unemployment benefits if she is fired for misconduct connected with the individual’s work. But the Kansas law was amended this past July to re-define the term “misconduct” to include “a violation of a company rule, including a safety rule, if: (A) The individual know or should have known about the rule; (B) the rule was lawful and reasonably related to the job; and (C) the rule was fairly and consistently enforced.”
The bank fired McCoy for violating a company policy. So, assuming she was aware of the policy and the bank had consistently enforced the policy, McCoy presumably would not qualify for benefits under the Kansas standard. There may be a question whether a policy governing off-duty conduct is reasonably related to the job, but a good case can be made that it does in situations, like this one, where the employee’s conduct reflects poorly on the employer or causes the employer to lose faith in the employee.  
So what’s the lesson here? The obvious takeaway, of course, is to stay out of the fountains at Kauffman Stadium. Beyond that, this case study shows how Kansas employers can reduce their exposure to unemployment claims through good policy management. Implement appropriate and comprehensive conduct rules. Communicate the rules to employees, and make sure you can prove that you did so. That’s why you have employees sign an acknowledgement stating that they received, read, understand, and agree to abide by the rules in the employee handbook, right? Finally, enforce the rules fairly and consistently.
These are all best practices that you should already be doing. But now your efforts will reap the additional reward of unemployment account savings. This advice, in the words John Dryden used to describe Chaucer, is “a perpetual fountain of good sense.”



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Don Berner, the Labor Law, OSHA, & Immigration Law Guy
Boyd Byers Image
Boyd Byers, the General Employment Law Guy
Jason Lacey Image
Jason Lacey, the Employee Benefits Guy
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