Employee Terminated for Cause will not Receive Severance

August 3, 2006 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - The US District Court for the District of Minnesota has ruled in favor of U.S. Bancorp for denying severance benefits to an employee who was fired for improperly accessing a superior's computer files.

In its opinion, the court said that, even if the benefits committee could believe that John Anderson had a legitimate business purpose for accessing the file, it could reasonably conclude that accessing files in another employee’s personal folder without permission is a violation of company policy.

Additionally, the court agreed with the defendants that Anderson could not introduce new evidence to explain his actions that the company’s Benefits Committee did not have when it determined his right to severance benefits.

Anderson questioned the committee’s interpretation of his actions as “gross misconduct,” but the court quoted in its opinion the conclusion in a similar case for another U.S. Bancorp employee that said, “[T]he Committee reasonably interpreted “cause” to include violations of U.S. Bancorp’s policies forbidding an employee to “access data that you are not authorized to access,” and requiring an employee to “ensure that all of your computer access is on a need-to-know basis and is limited to the information required to perform you job,” at least where such violations are knowing and willful.”   The court said the ability to access the information was not the same as the authorization to access the information.

In 2001, U.S. Bancorp merged with Firststar Corporation. Employees at U.S. Bancorp were covered under a severance pay program that provided for employees to be granted severance if they lose their jobs due to a change in control unless they are terminated for cause, according to the court document.

Several comments Anderson made to other employees and his supervisor regarding personnel changes caused his supervisor to question if he had accessed some files in her personal folder. Information Security was able to determine that three other people, including Anderson, had accessed the files. A human resources employee confronted Anderson about his access of the files, and he answered that he did not use the file for business purposes, that he “Just tried to see if I could access it,” and “closed it right away,” and he did not talk to anyone about what he saw in the file.

Anderson was terminated and applied for severance benefits. In reviewing his claim, the Benefits Committee determined he was not entitled to benefits since he was terminated for cause. Even though Anderson changed his responses about his reasoning for accessing the files when appealing to the Committee, the Committee considered in its review his initial responses and the allegation that he had stated in a termination meeting that he would have responded differently if he had known he would be terminated.

The opinion in Anderson v. U.S. Bancorp is  here .