Jan. 17, 2012 — -- Sharon Smiley had worked for 10 years as a receptionist and administrative assistant at a Chicago real estate company until she was fired for skipping lunch one day. After a two-year battle, an appeals court in Illinois has found that denial of her unemployment benefits was "clearly erroneous."
Smiley, 48, punched out of work for lunch Jan. 28, 2010, but remained at her desk to finish a project assigned by a manager because she did not plan to eat that day, she said.
Smiley, who had passed her 10-year anniversary with the company more than a month before, said another manager told her it was time for her to go to lunch and step away from her desk, but she refused. That manager observed Smiley working on a spreadsheet on her computer, answering the phone and responding to questions by people who approached her desk, according to a filing from the appellate court of Illinois.
Her former employer, Equity Lifestyle Properties Inc., did not return a request for comment.
The company's human resources director then became involved, explaining that hourly non-exempt employees were required to take a 30-minute lunch break, a policy that had been in the company handbook for 10 years, according to the filing. Not following the policy would be a violation of Illinois' labor laws, the HR director said.
The prominent location of Smiley's desk, "which was directly at the front door of the office, made this particularly important for her," according to the human resources director in the court filing. She and Smiley had "many discussions ... over her eating breakfast at her desk," the filing states.
"I knew you couldn't eat lunch at your desk," Smiley told ABC News. "I was under the impression that because I was punched out I could do what I want."
Smiley said her job had became so stressful that she suffered a stroke and was off work for almost three months, beginning July 13, 2009, according to the court filing.
Like several states, Illinois has a law that requires employers to provide employees a lunch break. But the law cannot be read to require an employer to fire a worker who refuses to take a break in order to finish her work, said Michael LeRoy, law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"Nonetheless, Illinois is an employment-at-will state, which means the employer can fire someone for a good reason, no reason, or a bad reason, as long as it is not discriminatory," he said.
Companies often have policies that are designed to limit the number of hours employees can work in a given day or week, largely in order to avoid overtime pay obligations, Cheryl Anderson, law professor with Southern Illinois University School of Law, said. Such policies often require employer permission to work beyond an employee's regular scheduled hours.
After being fired, Smiley learned she was ineligible for unemployment benefits because she had been discharged for misconduct connected with her work.
She appealed to the Illinois Department of Employment Security's board of review three times, was denied, then took her case to a circuit court. That court ruled Smiley, who did not challenge the firing, was eligible for benefits.
Smiley received a check with a lump sum on Nov. 28 for several months of unemployment, a percentage of her previous salary. Then she received a check every two weeks for $528 until she obtained her latest job last month.
The appellate court of Illinois affirmed the circuit court ruling Jan. 11, saying the "insubordination arose from [Smiley's] efforts to perform additional work for [her employer], beyond what was required of her," as first reported Monday in the Chicago Tribune.
"The insubordination occurred in a meeting with her superiors which lasted only four minutes," the court ruling stated.
The court ruling also said there was evidence that managers had been able to work with her in the past to perform new tasks with which she was uncomfortable.
An unemployed person in Illinois is qualified for unemployment unless there is misconduct, which "has been defined as conduct evincing such willful or wanton disregard of an employer's interests," according to the state's legal test in a ruling from the board of review.
"Workers generally have to be guilty of gross misconduct, which includes insubordination," professor Anderson said. "The bar is set high for the employer to prove that, and in this case, the court found the employer's argument that her actions amounted to insubordination to be inadequate."
In the case that established the precedent in 1987, an ambulance driver was fired after having four minor accidents in three months backing up a vehicle. The hearing officer and state agency denied his unemployment claim, but the state supreme court said the law requires "evil design" or wanton disregard of its interests, and that test was not satisfied.
"If the ambulance driver with four accidents in three months qualified for a benefit, then by implication, Ms. Smiley did, too," professor LeRoy said.
After nine months of unemployment, Smiley obtained a similar job at another company on Dec. 13. She said her new employer has a more liberal lunch policy.
"They told me I could sit at my desk, I could be at my computer during lunch, or I could look at magazines. And in my area, they have two flat-screen TVs on the wall," she said with a chuckle.