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Gerber v. Board of Review

June 24, 1998

KIMBERLY A. GERBER (GOLDEN), CLAIMANT-APPELLANT,
v.
BOARD OF REVIEW, RESPONDENT.



Before Judges King, Muir, Jr. and Kestin.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kestin, J.A.D.

[9]    Submitted: May 6, 1998

On appeal from the Board of Review, Department of Labor.

Claimant appeals from a decision of the Board of Review denying her claim for unemployment benefits. In reaching its result, the Board adopted a decision of the Appeal Tribunal which held that claimant was disqualified for benefits because she had left work voluntarily without good cause attributable to the work. N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a). We are in substantial agreement with the Board's Conclusion that claimant's allegations of stress on the job were not adequate as a compelling reason for leaving the job, and were, in any event, not sufficiently established. When claimant failed to support her allegation of job- related stress with medical documentation, the Board was well warranted in concluding that she had not satisfied the statutory "good cause attributable to [the] work" requirement in that connection. Nevertheless, the record suggests that the employer prevented claimant from beginning a new job which she had obtained before leaving the subject employment. We hold in the circumstances presented, if it is established to the agency's satisfaction that claimant's unemployed status was the direct result of the employer's conduct rather than claimant's own choice, that, as a matter of law, the unemployment must be seen to be attributable to the work as contemplated by the Unemployment Compensation Act (the Act), and claimant is eligible for benefits thereunder.

Claimant was employed by Allied Physicians Billing & Management Resources (Allied), where she worked as an account service representative. Claimant left Allied's employ on August 8, 1996, after finding other employment with Pinelands OB/GYN (Pinelands) which was to commence on August 19, 1996. According to claimant, she left Allied because of job-related stress, induced primarily by various conflicts with her supervisor, Peg Bofsord. Claimant alleged that Bofsord criticized her in front of other employees, causing her unnecessary humiliation, and assigned claimant to assist other employees in their tasks, which led her to fall behind in her own work. On August 16, three days before she was scheduled to begin work at Pinelands, claimant was notified that Pinelands had withdrawn its offer of a position because Allied had threatened a lawsuit should Pinelands employ her. Allied's conduct in this regard was verified by its representative who testified in the hearing before the Appeal Tribunal. Allied had taken the position that Pinelands was bound by its agreement as a former client of Allied not to hire any Allied employee for two years following the employee's separation from Allied. The validity of any such agreement is not at issue in this proceeding, and the record is silent as to whether claimant and Allied were parties to an employment contract with a restrictive covenant.

The finding that claimant's working conditions were not so onerous as to constitute "good cause attributable to [the] work" is sufficiently supported by credible evidence in the record to require our deference. Self v. Board of Review, 91 N.J. 453, 459 (1982) ("If the factual findings of an administrative agency are supported by sufficient credible evidence, courts are obliged to accept them"); Close v. Kordulak Bros., 44 N.J. 589, 598-99 (1965). See also Brady v. Board of Review, 152 N.J. 197, 210-11 (1997) (describing "limited" standard of review of administrative agency decisions). Deference to agency determinations is especially appropriate where the agency's decision is informed by its subject matter expertise in the area delegated by the Legislature. See Close v. Kordulak, supra, 44 N.J. at 599 (stating that courts should give "due regard" to agency expertise "where such expertise is a pertinent factor"); Brady v. Board of Review, supra, 152 N.J. at 210 (noting that appellate courts must defer to agency "expertise and superior knowledge of a particular field") (citing Greenwood v. State Police Training Ctr., 127 N.J. 500, 513 (1992)).

The on-the-job reprimands administered to claimant by her supervisor, Bofsord, while public and arguably improper and humiliating, were not so burdensome as to justify claimant's departure from the job. Cf. Goebelbecker v. State, 53 N.J. Super. 53, 59 (App. Div. 1958). Moreover, claimant had discussed her problems concerning Bofsord with Belinda Manix, Bofsord's supervisor. Manix had instructed Bofsord that any future reprimands with regard to claimant's work should occur in private, and she arranged for Bofsord to attend a supervisor training seminar. Furthermore, although claimant complained of severe stress because of conditions on the job, which allegedly induced physical symptoms and led to her physician prescribing antidepressant medication, no medical documentation was presented to establish either the nature and quality of the stress or its causal connection with job conditions. Thus, if the question as to claimant's eligibility for benefits were to be limited to the facts surrounding her departure from Allied, the Board of Review's determination that claimant left the employment without good cause attributable to the work would command our deference as amply supported by the record with due regard for the Board's expertise.

An alternative ground of eligibility presented by claimant was unaddressed by the agency, however. The Attorney General argues on behalf of the Board's decision:

Undoubtedly, it served no useful purpose under the circumstances for Gerber to resign and join the ranks of the unemployed, trading fair compensation from employment for no compensation at all. Despite indicating that she wanted to work things out with her employer, she resigned suddenly, demonstrating that she did not try hard enough to remain employed. Plainly, "to allow [Gerber] to recover [benefits] would subvert the express policy of providing aid to those who are unemployed `through no fault of their own.'" * * * The Unemployment Benefit Program was not intended to pay benefits in these circumstances.

Rather, the Unemployment Compensation Law is designed to "encourage persons to work," . . . and unemployment benefits are not payable to those who "would prefer benefits to suitable jobs." * * * Gerber "left work at a time when her employer had work for her," and she did not "do what was necessary and reasonable in order to remain employed." * * * It would be contrary to the purpose of the Unemployment Compensation Law to grant benefits to Gerber after she resigned from her job without good cause attributable to the work within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 43:21- 5(a). (Citations omitted.)

By suggesting that claimant voluntarily "join[ed] the ranks of the unemployed," "that she did not try hard enough to remain employed," and that she did not "do what was necessary and reasonable in order to remain employed[,]" this argument emphasizes different facts than claimant relies upon. It is claimant's position in a two-part alternative argument that, based upon the totality of facts, a determination of claimant's entitlement to unemployment benefits cannot rest alone on whether her "quit" from Allied was voluntary or involuntary. She argues that she did not become unemployed by reason of her own conduct or because of the vicissitudes of the working world. Rather, she stresses, she made careful arrangements to continue to be employed in a better job, for which she was hired, and only because of Allied's deliberate action in asserting its legal claims against the new employer, her replacement job fell through. Allied's conduct transforms claimant's situation from a run-of-the-mill voluntary quit case to one calling for reexamination of the fundamental principles of our Unemployment Compensation Act, and the meaning of the statutory language, "attributable to [the] work" in N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a).

N.J.S.A. 43:21-2 declares the purpose of the Act to be protection against "economic insecurity due to [involuntary] unemployment" by "lighten[ing] the burden which now so often falls with crushing force upon the unemployed worker and his family." As remedial legislation, it is to be liberally construed. Brady, supra, 152 N.J. at 212. However, denial of benefits in appropriate cases also advances the purposes of the Act by preserving the compensation fund "against claims by those not intended to share in its benefits." Ibid.

Before the Act was amended in 1961, the statutory standard permitted benefits to those who left work simply "for good cause." Yardville Supply Co. v. Board of Review, 114 N.J. 371, 374 (1989). Under that unqualified test, "good cause" might include purely personal reasons, including "the pressure of circumstances which may reasonably be viewed as having compelled [an employee to leave work]." Self, supra, 91 N.J. at 456 (citing Krauss v. A. & M. Karagheusian, Inc., 13 N.J. 447, 464 (1953)). The 1961 amendment changed the standard to "good cause attributable to [the] work", N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a), which had the effect of disqualifying those claimants who had left work for personal, even if good, reasons. White v. Board of Review, 146 N.J. Super. 268, 270 (App. Div. 1977).

Claimant argues that she left Allied for a better position elsewhere, and that this constituted "good cause attributable to [the] work" pursuant to the dictates of N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a) when the new job failed to materialize. Rider College v. Board of Review, 167 N.J. Super. 42 (App. Div. 1979), is the precedent cited in this regard. In that case, the court acknowledged: "[T]here may be situations where a voluntary quit to take a better position because of factors related to the work would constitute good cause attributable to the work[.]" Id. at 47. This view has been applied in New Jersey to validate a claim by one who left a part-time job to accept full-time employment. See Matter of A.F., 92 N.J.A.R.2d 7 (N.J. Adm. Oct. 28, 1991). See generally Emmanuel S. Tipon, Annotation, Unemployment Compensation: Leaving Employment in Pursuit of Other Employment as Affecting Right to Unemployment Compensation, 46 ALR5th 659 ยง 2[b], at 680 (1997) ("[C]laimants who ...


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