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Keels v. Board of Review

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


December 17, 2007

LELA M. KEELS, APPELLANT,
v.
BOARD OF REVIEW AND RUTGERS UNIVERSITY, RESPONDENTS.

On appeal from Final Decision of Board of Review, Docket No. 132,642.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted December 3, 2007

Before Judges Weissbard and Baxter.

Lela Keels appeals from the denial of unemployment compensation benefits. She argues that the Board of Review's (Board) decision was erroneous because she had good cause for resigning from her position as a project manager at the Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies at Rutgers University (Cornwall Center). We affirm.

I.

Keels was employed at the Cornwall Center from February 21, 2005, until September 19, 2006. In her August 23, 2006 letter of resignation, Keels stated she had developed "medical complications" that "if not directly related[,] are at least indirectly related to job stress and its management." Her last day of work was September 19, 2006. Seven weeks later, to support her claim for unemployment benefits, Keels provided a physician's note dated October 16, 2005. The physician stated that she had been treating Keels for elevated blood pressure "due to work-related stress, . . . [b]ut since [patient] left the job, her blood pressure has normalized." The doctor supplemented that note with a March 14, 2007 letter in which she added that when she examined Keels after Keels had resigned from her employment, "her blood pressure normalized without the need for prescription medications." The doctor did not tell Keels that she should leave her job. Keels never provided medical documentation to her employer before she submitted her letter of resignation. She acknowledged that she mentioned her blood pressure only once, "just in passing," when discussing with her supervisor the stress her job was causing.

The employer testified that prior to the time Keels submitted her resignation, the Cornwall Center had no intention of discharging her. Even after Keels submitted her letter of resignation, her supervisor offered to allow her to continue working until she found another job, and offered her part-time research work, but Keels declined.

Based on the testimony before the appeals examiner, the Appeal Tribunal concluded that although Keels "left the job because she had elevated blood pressure, [she] did not discuss any medical problems with the employer." The Appeal Tribunal also observed "the employer had reduced the claimant's workload in February 2006 from the usual five to eight projects [down] to two projects when [Keels] complained of being overwhelmed. The employer offered the claimant part-time work after the claimant submitted her resignation, which [Keels] refused." Based on those facts, the Appeal Tribunal determined that Keels was disqualified for benefits pursuant to N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a) because she resigned her position without good cause attributable to her employment, thereby rendering her ineligible for benefits pursuant to N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a). The Appeal Tribunal also concluded that by quitting without discussing her health problems with her employer, Keels impermissibly denied her employer the opportunity to resolve any work-related health issues.

Keels filed a timely appeal with the Board, which on January 26, 2007, rendered a final decision affirming the decision of the Appeal Tribunal, again finding that Keels was disqualified for benefits pursuant to N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a). On appeal, Keels claims that she was entitled to leave her employment because the "autocratic management style of the Center" was the cause of her medical problems.

II.

The Board's determination must be affirmed unless it is "arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable," or is not supported by substantial credible evidence in the record as a whole. Brady v. Bd of Review, 152 N.J. 197, 210 (1997). In determining whether an agency decision is supported by substantial credible evidence, we are obliged to accord deference to the Board's fact-findings. Associated Util. Servs. v. Bd. of Review, 131 N.J. Super. 585, 588 (App. Div. 1974).

A section of the New Jersey Unemployment Compensation Law, N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a), provides that a claimant is disqualified for benefits:

[f]or the week in which the individual has left work voluntarily without good cause attributable to such work, and for each week thereafter until the individual becomes reemployed and works four weeks in employment . . . and has earned in employment at least six times the individual's weekly benefit rate . . . . [N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a) (emphasis added).]

While the statute does not define "good cause," the statute has been construed to require more than mere dissatisfaction with working conditions:

In scrutinizing an employee's reason for leaving, the test is one of ordinary common sense and prudence. "Mere dissatisfaction with working conditions which are not shown to be abnormal or do not affect health, does not constitute good cause for leaving work voluntarily." The decision to leave employment must be compelled by real, substantial and reasonable circumstances not imaginary, trifling and whimsical ones . . . . [I]t is the employee's responsibility to do what is necessary and reasonable in order to remain employed. [Domenico v. Bd. of Review, 192 N.J. Super. 284, 288 (App. Div. 1983)(citations omitted).]

A claim that work conditions were so abnormal as to provide good cause for an employee to quit must be so compelling and so onerous that the employee had no alternative but to leave the employment. Inside Radio/Radio Only, Inc. v. Bd. of Review, 204 N.J. Super. 296, 298 (App. Div. 1985). Moreover, such claim must be proven by competent medical evidence that demonstrates that the working conditions caused the employee to suffer medical problems to such an extent as to make resignation medically necessary. Wojcik v. Bd. of Review, 58 N.J. 341, 344 (1971). Neither a claimant's conclusory statements that her work adversely affected her health, nor her hearsay testimony as to what her doctor advised, will support a finding that the work adversely affected her health to the extent that she had good cause to resign. Brown v. Bd. of Review, 117 N.J. Super. 399, 404 (App. Div. 1971). The crucial issue in a determination of whether or not an employee is disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits pursuant to N.J.S.A. 43:21-5 is the employee's medical condition at the time the employee submitted a letter of resignation. Combs v. Bd. of Review, 269 N.J. Super. 616, 624 (App. Div. 1994).

We agree with the Board's conclusion that Keels has failed to satisfy her burden of establishing good cause for leaving her employment. Her physician did not tell her to quit her job due to her high blood pressure, which her doctor was treating with medication. Neither of the documents provided by Keels's physician stated that her resignation was medically necessary. Instead, her doctor merely stated that her elevated blood pressure was the result of work-related stress, which is quite different from a statement that the only way to control Keels's blood pressure would be for her to resign from her employment. We agree with the Board's conclusion that at the time Keels terminated her employment, only her own, subjective opinion was provided to support her contention that work-related stress had caused the high blood pressure. There is also substantial support in the record for the Board's conclusion that Keels failed to satisfy the requirement imposed by Combs, supra, 269 N.J. Super. at 624, that medical documentation justifying the resignation be provided at the time the resignation is tendered, not later.

Although Keels claims that her employer never asked her to provide any medical documentation at the time she submitted her letter of resignation, that argument lacks merit because the employee is obliged to provide such documentation. Ibid. The employee cannot circumvent that requirement by claiming that the employer failed to ask.

Nor are we persuaded by Keels's contention that her supervisor's management style provided good cause for leaving her employment. Her objections to her supervisor's management style is tantamount to a personality complaint, and is far from being "so compelling and so onerous," Inside Radio/Radio Only Inc., supra, 204 N.J. Super. at 298, that Keels was left with no alternative but to leave her employment.

Accordingly, the Board's finding that Keels did not have "good cause attributable to her work" when she submitted her letter of resignation is based on substantial, credible evidence in the record.

Affirmed.

20071217

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