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Violating any work rule can be just cause for termination

by on
in Leaders & Managers,Preventing Workplace Violence

Under N.C. General Statute § 126-35, North Carolina state government employees can be discharged only for “just cause,” a term the statute doesn’t clearly define. The vague language can make it difficult to terminate a state employee.

But that’s not the case if a state agency has a clear set of rules, can show the employee knew about those rules and broke them anyway.

As the following case shows, breaking a rule stating that there’s zero tolerance for workplace violence can serve as the basis for a just-cause dismissal.

Recent case: Willie Tellado worked for the North Carolina Department of Transportation until he was fired after a workplace argument with another employee. Tellado was a transportation worker and had an ongoing personality conflict with the co-worker.

Things got heated one day as the two worked on a crew assigned to grind cracked portions of a roadway and patch them with new asphalt. After the co-worker allegedly threatened Tellado’s family, Tellado threw a shovelful of ground-up asphalt on the co-worker. Both were fired.

Tellado appealed his termination. He claimed the state had no just cause to fire him. The North Carolina Personnel Commission reviewed the case and concluded that the Department of Transportation had a clear written policy prohibiting any workplace violence. The rule, which Tellado acknowledged he had read, defined workplace violence as “unwanted or hostile physical contact such as hitting, fighting, pushing, shoving or throwing objects.”

The Personnel Commission said unacceptable personal conduct such as breaking a clear work rule was a just cause for termination. The North Carolina Court of Appeals agreed. (Tellado v. North Carolina Department of Transportation, No. COA07-1457, North Carolina Court of Appeals, 2008) 

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