HUTCHISON (CAROLYN J.) VS. KENTUCKY UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE COMMISSION, ET AL.Annotate this Case
RENDERED: DECEMBER 3, 2010; 10:00 A.M.
TO BE PUBLISHED
Commonwealth of Kentucky
Court of Appeals
CAROLYN J. HUTCHISON
APPEAL FROM JEFFERSON CIRCUIT COURT
HONORABLE MARY M. SHAW, JUDGE
ACTION NO. 08-CI-006193
INSURANCE COMMISSION; AND
JEFFERSON COUNTY BOARD OF
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BEFORE: ACREE, JUDGE; HENRY AND ISAAC,1 SENIOR JUDGES.
ACREE, JUDGE: Carolyn Hutchison appeals the December 3, 2009 opinion of
the Jefferson Circuit Court affirming the administrative denial of unemployment
benefits. Finding the circuit court properly applied the law, we affirm.
Senior Judges Michael L. Henry and Sheila R. Isaac sitting as Special Judges by assignment of
the Chief Justice pursuant to Section 110(5)(b) of the Kentucky Constitution and Kentucky
Revised Statute (KRS) 21.580.
Facts and procedure
Hutchison began employment with the Jefferson County Board of Education
(School Board) in 1996 as a teacher. Her employment continued until she was
discharged on November 7, 2007. The employer informed Hutchison her
employment was terminated because she had engaged in conduct which rendered
her unable to be a role model for her students.
Hutchison filed for unemployment benefits, and her request was denied. She
appealed the initial determination to a referee.
The parties presented to the referee evidence which was largely undisputed,
including that on April 15, 2007, Hutchison was arrested for third-degree terroristic
threatening and two counts of fourth-degree assault (all misdemeanors), in addition
to first-degree burglary (a felony). These charges arose from Hutchison’s behavior
following the breakup of a sixteen-year romantic relationship. The School Board
relieved Hutchison of her instructional duties and reassigned her to a production
and materials position.
The undisputed evidence was also that Hutchison entered a guilty plea on
May 7, 2007, and the charges were reduced to four misdemeanors.2 It appears
from the record that a Domestic Violence Order (DVO) was entered as a result of
The parties agree that Hutchison was arrested again only a week after
entry of her guilty plea and that the conduct which led to this arrest was also
Hutchison pleaded guilty to first-degree criminal trespass, two counts of fourth-degree assault,
and one count of third-degree terroristic threatening.
related to the breakup of the romantic relationship. This time Hutchison was
charged with violation of a DVO, carrying a concealed deadly weapon, first-degree
stalking, and failure to illuminate the headlights on her vehicle. On September 26,
2007, Hutchison pleaded guilty to second-degree stalking and violation of a DVO;
the other charges were dismissed. Again, all of these facts were undisputed before
Hutchison received notice of her discharge on November 7, 2007. The
parties agree the employer’s stated reason for terminating Hutchison’s employment
was that “[her] convictions for these violent crimes seriously inhibits [sic] [her]
ability to serve as a positive role model for [her] students.”
The referee affirmed the initial determination denying Hutchison
unemployment benefits. The denial was based on the referee’s conclusion that
Hutchison knowingly violated a reasonable and uniformly enforced rule of the
School Board, that rule being codified in KRS 161.790(1)(b) and prohibiting
conduct unbecoming a teacher.
The Commission affirmed and adopted the referee’s findings as its own. On
appeal, the circuit court affirmed, finding the order was based upon substantial
evidence and the correct rule of law.
Standard of review
As the circuit court correctly noted, an administrative agency’s findings of
fact are reviewed for clear error, and its conclusions of law are reviewed de novo.
“The judicial standard of review of an unemployment benefit decision is whether
the [Commission’s] findings of fact were supported by substantial evidence and
whether the agency correctly applied the law to the facts.” Thompson v. Kentucky
Unemployment Insurance Commission, 85 S.W.3d 621, 624 (Ky. App. 2002)
Relationship between the claimant’s conduct and her employment
Hutchison first contends on appeal that the circuit court’s legal conclusion
that the misconduct was connected to the work, for purposes of disqualification
from unemployment benefits, was erroneous. More specifically, Hutchison alleges
it was error for the circuit court to determine that such a connection was
demonstrated, “as a matter of law, [by] guilty pleas to misdemeanors arising out of
the break up of a long-term domestic relationship[.]” (Appellant’s brief, p. 5).
Hutchison also insists on appeal that she did not engage in conduct
unbecoming a teacher under the statutory standard, again, because there was no
connection between her criminal behavior and her employment.
While Hutchison attempts to distinguish these two arguments, our inquiry is
the same for both. The key to both is whether, as a matter of law, there was a
nexus between her employment as a teacher and the conduct for which she was
discharged. Accordingly, we analyze them together.
KRS Chapter 341 governs unemployment disputes. An employee is
disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits if she was discharged for
misconduct related to her employment. KRS 341.370(1)(b). An employee has
been discharged for misconduct when she was fired for a “knowing violation of a
reasonable and uniformly enforced rule of an employer[.]” KRS 341.370(6). The
referee concluded Hutchison had committed misconduct connected with the work
because she had violated the employer’s rule against conduct unbecoming a
teacher and accordingly disqualified her from receiving benefits.
The employer’s rule against conduct unbecoming a teacher is codified in
KRS 161.790(1)(b). Pursuant to that statute, a teacher’s employment contract may
be terminated when that teacher has demonstrated “[i]mmoral character or conduct
unbecoming a teacher[.]” KRS 161.790(1)(b). However, “the conduct, when it
occurs in a context other than professional competency in the classroom should
have some nexus to the teacher’s occupation[.]” Board of Education of Hopkins
County v. Wood, 717 S.W.2d 837, 840 (Ky. 1986).
The undisputed evidence before the referee was that Hutchison committed a
series of misdemeanors in a relatively short period of time. Hutchison maintains
the lack of a direct connection between those misdemeanors and her employment
means the requisite nexus between the two is missing.
In the past, Kentucky courts have found conduct unbecoming a teacher had a
sufficient nexus with the employment when the conduct was committed outside the
workplace in certain limited contexts. These situations have involved improper
contact with students or falsely reporting the reason for an absence from work.
Wood, 717 S.W.2d at 840 (A sufficient nexus existed when two teachers smoked
marijuana with two students in the teachers’ apartment); Board of Education of
Laurel County v. McCollum, 721 S.W.2d 703, 704-05 (Ky. 1986) (teacher falsely
called in sick to work for the school board and instead drove a coal truck for
another employer). There are no such circumstances here. Hutchison did not
engage in criminal behavior while performing her duties as a teacher; nor did her
criminal conduct involve students or her fellow faculty members.
However, there is a heightened standard of conduct for teachers, and KRS
161.790(1)(b) reflects that.
The purpose of teacher tenure laws is to promote good
order in the school system by preventing the arbitrary
removal of capable and experienced teachers by political
or personal whim. It is not to protect those who violate
the criminal law. A teacher is held to a standard of
personal conduct which does not permit the commission
of immoral or criminal acts because of the harmful
impression made on the students. The school teacher has
traditionally been regarded as a moral example for the
Wood, 717 S.W.2d at 839 (Ky. 1986) (citing Gover v. Stovall, 35 S.W.2d 24 (Ky.
1931)); see also McCollum, 721 S.W.2d at 705 (using nearly identical language).
Given the heightened standard of conduct, paired with Hutchison’s repeated
failure to conform her behavior to the requirements of the law and the violent and
threatening nature of her offenses, the conduct had a sufficient nexus to her
employment and therefore constituted conduct unbecoming a teacher. It is of no
consequence that no student or faculty member actually knew of this conduct.
When a teacher engages in behavior which seriously compromises her ability to be
an “example to the school community,” there is a sufficient nexus between the
employment and the conduct to warrant disqualification for employment benefits.
Wood, 717 S.W.2d at 840. The circuit court properly affirmed the Commission’s
application of the law to the facts before the referee.
Neither this opinion nor those we cite stand for the proposition that any and
all criminal convictions are necessarily connected to the employment of a teacher.
In the instant case, it is the quantity of the convictions (six), their nature (violent,
threatening, in defiance of a DVO), and their timing (occurring in a very brief
span), that justify the employer’s decision to terminate Hutchison.
Burden of proof
Hutchison’s last argument is that the circuit court’s affirmation of the referee
and Commission decisions amounts to a finding that pleading guilty to violent
misdemeanor crimes is presumptively conduct unbecoming a teacher. Hutchison
believes this impermissibly shifts the burden of proof to the claimant.
Hutchison is correct that it is the employer’s burden to demonstrate the
employee committed misconduct connected with the employment. Brown Hotel
Co. v. Edwards, 365 S.W.2d 299, 301 (Ky. 1963). In this case, that burden was
imposed upon the employer and was not shifted to Hutchison. Both parties were
permitted to present evidence and make legal arguments to the referee, who simply
found the employer’s position more compelling in light of the evidence. The
circuit court, applying the appropriate standards of review, affirmed because the
employer had demonstrated Hutchison committed misconduct connected to the
The circuit court’s ruling that the evidence of Hutchison’s conduct
demonstrated a sufficient connection with the employment does not amount to
burden shifting; rather, it is a correct conclusion of law based on the relevant facts.
The circuit court properly affirmed the Commission’s determination that
Hutchison was disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits because she
was discharged for misconduct connected to the employment. We affirm.
BRIEF FOR APPELLANT:
Thomas J. Schulz
BRIEF FOR APPELLEE
Clay J. Lamb
BRIEF FOR APPELLEE
JEFFERSON COUNTY BOARD OF
Byron E. Leet
Kristie Alfred Daugherty