December 14, 2007
RONALD HADLEY, APPELLANT,
BOARD OF REVIEW AND WESTWOOD BOARD OF EDUCATION, RESPONDENTS.
On appeal from the Board of Review, Department of Labor, Docket No. 115,725.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted November 15, 2007
Before Judges Axelrad and Sapp-Peterson.
Ronald Hadley appeals from the August 10, 2006 decision by the Board of Review (Board), which affirmed the finding of the Appeal Tribunal requiring Hadley to refund unemployment compensation benefits he was not eligible to receive. We affirm.
Hadley worked as a custodian with the Westwood Board of Education (Westwood). He claimed that he became stressed when he was unable to remove the urine odor from bathroom floors, which he contended were soaked daily with urine because the young children missed the toilet. His inability to address this problem caused him stress to the extent that he took sick leave. Upon his return, he was asked to surrender his keys, which he claimed meant that he had been discharged. On December 18, 2005, he filed a claim for unemployment benefits. A deputy claims examiner initially determined that Hadley was ineligible to collect benefits because he was discharged from employment due to misconduct. Hadley appealed and the Appeal Tribunal reversed the determination and found him eligible for benefits from December 11, 2005 through January 21, 2006.
Westwood appealed to the Board. By order dated March 17, 2006, the Board remanded the matter to the Appeal Tribunal for rehearing and a new decision. On April 10, 2006, the Appeal Tribunal found that Hadley was disqualified for benefits under N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a). It specifically found that,
The claimant's testimony he was terminated is rejected by this Tribunal, as he was the party who initiated his separation when he returned from his authorized leave and informed his employer he no longer wanted to continue his employment because he de[e]med the job was too difficult. The claimant did not address the issues of his concern prior to leaving the job; hence, good cause has [n]ot been shown in this case[.]
The claimant's leaving of the work because of his working conditions, is not considered a cause sufficient enough to justify one leaving the ranks of the employed to join the ranks of the unemployed. The claimant left work voluntarily without good cause attributable to such work. Therefore, the claimant is disqualified for benefits as of 12/11/05 in accordance with N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a).
Following the Appeal Tribunal decision, Hadley received a Request for Refund of Unemployment Benefits from the Director of Unemployment Insurance (Director) seeking the return of the benefits improperly paid. The letter advised Hadley that "[a]ny money collected improperly must be returned regardless of the reason for the overpayment[.]" Hadley appealed both the decision determining that he was ineligible to receive benefits and the refund request to the Board.*fn1 The Board referred the refund request appeal to the Chief Appeals Examiner on June 7, 2006. On June 9, 2006, the Board affirmed the decision of the Appeal Tribunal finding Hadley disqualified for benefits as of December 11, 2005.*fn2
On June 27, 2006, the Appeal Tribunal conducted a hearing on Hadley's appeal of the Director's refund request. The Appeal Tribunal affirmed the Director's determination. Hadley appealed to the Board, and "[o]n the basis of the record below," the Board "agree[d] with the decision reached" and determined that Hadley was "liable to refund $7,042.00, paid as benefits for the weeks ending December 24, 2005 through April 1, 2006." Hadley's ensuing appeal followed.
Hadley argues that his discharge for taking sick days as a result of working conditions should not constitute good cause for him to be liable to repay benefits he received. Moreover, he contends, as an additional ground against repayment, that an unidentified person at the Board advised him that he "should not have been able to cash these [unemployment] checks until the claim was resolved and . . . that someone in the Unemployment Office had made an error."
Our scope of review of administrative decisions is narrowly circumscribed. In re Taylor, 158 N.J. 644, 656 (1999). Our role is to determine "'whether the findings made could reasonably have been reached on sufficient credible evidence present in the record' considering 'the proofs as a whole[.]'" Ibid. (quoting Close v. Kordulak Bros., 44 N.J. 589, 599 (1965)). We may not engage in an independent assessment of the evidence, In re Taylor, supra, 158 N.J. Super. at 656, and we will accord a strong presumption of reasonableness to the decision of an administrative agency. Smith v. Ricci, 89 N.J. 514, 525 (1982). Although we give great deference to administrative decisions, State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 159 (1964), we do not act simply as a rubber stamp of the agency's decision. Henry v. Rahway State Prison, 81 N.J. 571, 579-80 (1980). An administrative decision will be reversed when it is found to be "arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable or it is not supported by substantial credible evidence in the record as a whole." Ibid.
N.J.S.A. 43:21-16(d) provides in pertinent part:
. . . that any person, whether (i) by reason of the nondisclosure or misrepresentation by him or by another of a material fact . . . or (ii) for any other reason, has received any sum as benefits . . . while he was disqualified from receiving benefits, or while otherwise not entitled to receive such sum as benefits, such person, unless the director . . . directs otherwise by regulation, shall be liable to repay those benefits in full.
In construing this provision, we have previously noted that irrespective of the hardship that befalls upon one who is required to repay benefits collected, recouping benefits from one ineligible to receive the benefits "furthers the purpose of the unemployment compensation laws" and preserves the Unemployment Trust Fund "for the payment of benefits to those individuals entitled to receive them. Bannan v. Bd. of Review, 299 N.J. Super. 671, 674-75 (App. Div. 1997). Additionally, both federal and state regulations require recovery of improperly paid unemployment compensation benefits. See 42 U.S.C.A. §503 and N.J.A.C. 12:17-14.1.
Here there is no dispute that the Board, in its June 9, 2006 decision, determined that Hadley was ineligible to receive benefits he collected. No appeal of that decision was filed. Once it was determined that he was ineligible to receive the benefits paid, the Director, in accordance with both state and federal laws, properly sought recoupment. Moreover, the fact that some unidentified person told Hadley that the checks should not have been issued to him until the question of his eligibility was resolved does not alter the outcome. See Bannan supra, 299 N.J. Super. at 674 (holding that reliance upon erroneous information from unemployment compensation office employee does not exempt claimant from the requirement that he reimburse the Division of Unemployment and Temporary Disability Insurance for benefits improperly received).
We are satisfied that the Board's decision was neither arbitrary, capricious, nor unreasonable. The Board's decision is supported by substantial credible evidence in the record. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(D).