Would You Fire Someone for Eating Leftovers?
Do you know where your Fourth of July company picnic leftovers are? And do you care?
Managers at Dillard's department store apparently did. The Little Rock-based chain fired Nolan Koewler of Evansville, Indiana, last July for stealing two hot dogs left over from his store's holiday cookout. (Click here if you need to prove to yourself, as we did, that you're not, in fact, reading The Onion.)
Mike Marz, the Dillard’s dock manager who’d bought the food on a company credit card, ordered that the leftovers be stored in the break room freezer until Labor Day. But Koewler claimed he never heard those instructions—or, in legalese, "rescission of this offer of celebratory food"—and the day after the party, took and ate two hot dogs. Marz reviewed security camera footage, which caught Koewler, and so Marz took the issue to the store manager. With surveillance video proof of Koewler’s so-called theft, the manager summoned the police. (See the appeals court ruling here.)
According to Koewler, the manager offered him two options: sign a statement saying he stole the franks, or spend the night in jail. Koewler took option one and promptly was fired.
He applied for unemployment benefits and the company denied his claim. So he appealed. On August 13, a claims deputy of the Indiana Department of Workforce Development determined that Koewler was not discharged for just cause and thus could receive unemployment benefits. Dillard's appealed and the decision was reversed.
Koewler appealed the decision to Indiana’s Court of Appeals. In a unanimous ruling last week, a three-judge panel found no evidence that Koewler heard the instructions to lay off the dogs, and that the Little Rock-based chain wasn’t justified in firing him. (The court ruling also notes that Marz’s instruction to freeze the leftover was "unclear or disregarded because the food was retrieved from the refrigerator and not the freezer." In a second footnote, the court also went to the trouble to note that "the two hotdogs in said storage lacked great market value and that the intrinsic value to Dillard's was diminishing as the safe consumption date approached.")
Result: Koewler can receive unemployment benefits.
Inc. contributing editor Courtney Rubin was for five years a London-based staff writer for People magazine. Rubin, a former senior writer for Washingtonian magazine, has written for the New York Times magazine, Time, Marie Claire, and other publications. She is the author of The Weight-Loss Diaries.