November 16, 2007
JANICE L. BUZZARD, APPELLANT,
BOARD OF REVIEW, DEPARTMENT OF LABOR, AND STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEPARTMENT OF JUDICIARY, RESPONDENTS.
On appeal from a Final Decision of the Board of Review, Department of Labor, Docket No. 80,910.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted September 26, 2007
Before Judges Axelrad and Payne.
Claimant, Janice Palmer-Buzzard, appeals from a final decision of the Board of Review finding her disqualified from receipt of unemployment benefits pursuant to N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a) because she left her job voluntarily without good cause attributable to her work.
Claimant was employed as a judiciary clerk III in the Child Support and Enforcement Section of the Department of the Judiciary from February 13, 2001 through April 13, 2005, when her retirement became effective. On appeal, claimant asserts that she had "good cause" for voluntarily leaving her employment as the result of alleged problems with her work environment beginning in March 2003 and extending to the date of her departure. Specifically, she claims problems with a co-worker, Hattie DiMassa. She claims that DiMassa pushed her and, although claimant complained to her supervisor, no disciplinary action was taken against DiMassa, who continued to harass her verbally and by e-mail until the co-worker left the department in September 2004. Additionally, claimant alleges that she was prescribed medicine for high blood pressure, a condition that she asserts was caused by her stressful job, and finally, she claims that she was required to work hard, but had no opportunity for advancement.
The record of the matter indicates the following with respect to claimant's employment. On November 14, 2002, a complaint of racial and marital discrimination was filed by Tisha Williams against claimant. On March 10, 2003, claimant was cleared of charges. However, in a memo, the Administrative Director of the Courts reported that the investigation found that claimant's personal dislike for Williams affected how claimant carried out some of her job responsibilities. The matter was to be referred to the Assistant Director for Probation Services for appropriate action.
In January 2003, claimant requested a lateral transfer from her former employment in Central Registry and, in March, was reassigned to the Exception Processing Unit under the supervision of Patricia DiMassa. In April 2003, DiMassa went on maternity leave, increasing claimant's workload.
On July 11, 2003, a second discrimination complaint was filed by Williams accusing claimant of harassment and retaliation. Apparently, no grounds were found for the complaint.
On November 10, 2003, DiMassa, who had returned to work, complained to her supervisor regarding claimant's work performance, leading claimant to again request a transfer. At this time, or perhaps in early 2004, DiMassa also put her hand on claimant's shoulder, while claimant was sitting, allegedly shoving her. Subsequent investigation affirmed the touching, but did not determine that DiMassa's intent had been to hurt claimant. Discipline was not imposed.
In January 2004, claimant determined to retire. In April 2004, claimant and her husband house-hunted in South Carolina.
On September 11, 2004, claimant and her husband signed a contract to purchase a house in South Carolina, and in January 2005, claimant and her husband moved.
On February 10, 2005, claimant gave notice of her retirement. During this period, claimant was under medical treatment for high blood pressure, which claimant attributed to work-related stress. On March 17, 2005, claimant stopped work, using sick time for the remainder of her employment, which ended officially on April 13, 2005. On April 15, 2005, claimant and her husband sold their New Jersey home.
Claimant's application for unemployment benefits was initially denied on the ground that she had voluntarily left her employment because of dissatisfaction with working conditions and had not exhausted all opportunities to resolve the problems with the employer before leaving. On appeal, the Appeal Tribunal granted benefits in a decision dated October 3, 2005. However, as the result of the lack of participation by the employer, the matter was remanded for a second hearing, which occurred on December 7, 2005. At that hearing, a representative of the employer testified that he had received no notification that claimant was being treated for work-related stress; there were no indications of stress other than that normally associated with employment; and there was no indication that appellant's stress had risen to the level that needed to be addressed in the workplace. The employer's witness also indicated that the work performed by claimant was of a type that was never-ending, and that there were limited opportunities for promotion from her position. Following the hearing, the Appeal Tribunal once again granted benefits, finding that claimant was pushed and subject to unremitting public criticism, while being denied a transfer, resulting in medical symptoms of stress for which treatment was being rendered.
On further appeal, the Board of Review reversed, finding that claimant had quit her job to move out of state and that the Appeal Tribunal's conclusions were unsupported by the evidence. With respect to claimant's allegations, the Board accepted that she had been shoved, but found that "over a year passed before the claimant's separation, which satisfies us that this isolated incident was not the cause of her leaving." Additionally, the Board found that DiMassa had been transferred to another position six months before claimant left, and thus, the workplace conditions allegedly leading to claimant's departure had ended. As a final matter, the Board found no medical proof that working conditions had caused appellant to suffer stress, or that she was advised by a doctor that it was medically necessary for her to leave her employment. Thus, the Board held that claimant was disqualified for benefits from April 10, 2005 pursuant to N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a) because she left work voluntarily without good cause attributable to the work.
Our role in reviewing the decisions of the Board of Review, like the decisions of any other administrative agency, is limited. Brady v. Board of Review, 152 N.J. 197, 210 (1997).
The test is not whether we would have come to the same conclusion as did the Board, but rather, whether the Board could reasonably have reached its conclusions on the basis of the evidence presented. Ibid. In reviewing the Board's decision, we must defer to its expertise and superior knowledge of the field of eligibility for unemployment insurance benefits. Ibid. If we find that the Board's factual findings were supported by sufficient credible evidence, we are obliged to accept them.
Ibid. (citing Self v. Bd. of Review, 91 N.J. 453, 459 (1982); Goodman v. London Metals Exchange, Inc., 86 N.J. 19, 28-29 (1981)).
In this case, claimant's principal complaint arose from the alleged conduct of DiMassa and the stress resulting from the conflict between the two women. However, as the Board rightly noted, DiMassa left the department in September 2004, long before claimant decided to retire. Thus, this conflict could not reasonably have been the cause of her determination to leave work.
Further, in order to establish that her retirement was medically necessitated by work-related stress, claimant was required to present medical evidence supporting her position. Wojcik v. Bd. of Review, 58 N.J. 341, 344 (1971); Israel v. Bally's Park Place, Inc., 283 N.J. Super. 1, 6 (App. Div. 1995), certif. denied, 143 N.J. 326 (1996); Brown v. Bd. of Review, 117 N.J. Super. 399, 404 (App. Div. 1971). She did not do so, nor did she otherwise establish any causal relationship between her high blood pressure and her working environment or the necessity for leaving her job as a result.
Our review of the record suggests that claimant, dissatisfied with the nature of her job, determined to retire with her husband to South Carolina and that her decision to leave her employment was not compelled by any good cause attributable to the work as statutorily required by N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a). We regard the Board's like decision to be well-founded, and we affirm.
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