On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).
The issue before the Court is whether, for purposes of collecting unemployment benefits, an employee's lack of transportation from work, which led to his separation from employment, was caused by work related factors or purely personal factors within the employee's control.
John Utley worked for Myron Manufacturing Corporation (Myron) in Maywood, New Jersey for thirteen years. Because of a visual impairment, Utley relied on public transportation to get back and forth from his home in Paterson to work each day. In February 2005, Utley's shift hours were changed to a time when buses were not running at the end of his shift. He informed his supervisors of his transportation problem. To adapt to the shift change, Utley carpooled home for a short time with a supervisor who lived in Hackensack. Thereafter, Utley found another co-worker, Raquel, to take him home. That arrangement was suitable as long as Utley and Raquel worked the same hours, including the "mandatory overtime" required by Myron. At some point, however, Raquel was relieved of her overtime duty. On some evenings, Raquel would wait the several hours until Utley's extended shift was over and then take him home. On other occasions, despite the mandatory overtime requirement, Utley would leave at midnight in order to get a ride home with Raquel. This transportation problem continued for nine months. Utley explained the situation to his supervisors but they demanded that he work overtime despite the fact that he would be stranded at the end of his extended shift.
In November 2005, Raquel had to leave the country for two weeks to take care of her ill father. After Utley was unsuccessful in finding another co-worker to carpool with, he asked his supervisors if he could take vacation time to coincide with Raquel's absence. His supervisors declined that request, taking the time to chastise him for the times he left early instead of working the mandatory overtime.
The stress from the constant friction with his supervisors became so overwhelming for Utley that it threatened his "mental and physical well being." Without available public transportation, Utley feared he would be let go because he could not work to the end of his shift during the two weeks of Raquel's absence. Rather than be fired, Utley decided to leave Myron.
The Division of Unemployment and Disability Insurance (now the Division of Unemployment Insurance) denied Utley's initial claim for unemployment benefits. Utley then filed a request for a review of the denial with the Division's Appeal Tribunal. In a letter to the Division, Utley claimed he was forced by his supervisors and the shift hour change to leave his job. A hearing was conducted before an appeals examiner, who took testimony from Utley. Myron did not participate in the hearing or provide testimony disputing Utley's account. The appeals examiner, relying on N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a), held that Utley's "leaving work due to lack of transportation" was "not connected to the work itself." The examiner believed that an employee who voluntarily quits his job because of lack of transportation is per se barred from receiving benefits. For that reason, the examiner concluded that Utley "left work voluntarily without good cause attributable to the work and was [therefore] disqualified for benefits." The Division's Board of Review summarily upheld the decision of the appeals examiner.
The Appellate Division affirmed the Board of Review's denial of unemployment benefits for Utley. The panel compared Utley's case to those where employees quit their jobs because of plant relocations that lengthen the commuting time, especially in light of Utley's success in commuting to work for nine months after his shift change. The panel concluded that the loss of transportation for two weeks was entirely personal to him and was not attributable to his work.
The Supreme Court granted certification.
HELD: The undisputed facts support the conclusion that John Utley resigned from Myron Manufacturing Corporation for work-related rather than personal reasons, entitling him to his statutory unemployment benefits.
1. New Jersey's Unemployment Compensation Law ( the Act) is social legislation that provides financial assistance to eligible workers suffering the distress and dislocation caused by unemployment. The purpose of the Act is to provide some income for the worker earning nothing because he or she is out of work through no fault or act of his or her own. The Act is to be construed liberally in favor of the allowance of benefits. Not only laid off or fired workers are protected; those employees who voluntarily quit their jobs for good cause attributable to their work are also subject to benefits under N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a). (Pp. 10-13)
2. When "commuting problems" arise solely from the personal circumstances of the employee, unrelated to an alteration in the terms and conditions of employment, the employee who voluntarily quits his or her job cannot show "good cause" qualifying the worker for unemployment benefits. However, there are circumstances in which the employer set in motion a chain of events that led to the worker's inability to get to work, thus qualifying that employee for benefits under the statute. (Pp. 13-17)
3. When read together, the regulations promulgated by the Department of Labor to guide the determinations of eligibility made by the Division, the Appeal Tribunal, and the Board of Review and the Department of Labor's interpretive analysis embody the pragmatic approaches taken in prior case law (Self, Bateman, and Rolka) which basically require a consideration of all relevant factors in deciding whether an employee has "left work voluntarily without good cause attributable to such work." The term "lack of transportation" does not remove the need to assess whether the employee left for work-related reasons. (Pp. 17-18)
4. The undisputed facts reveal that the altered working conditions of Utley's employment made it impossible for him to use public transportation, which he, as a sight-impaired person, depended on for thirteen years. Utley's predicament is in many ways no different from those employees whose commuting hours dramatically increased as a result of employer relocation. The analysis should be the same. Here, the source of Utley's transportation problem was his employer, who initiated the chain of events that compelled him to quit his job. (Pp. 18-21)
5. This matter called for a fact-sensitive analysis, not the mechanical approach taken by the appeals examiner, in assessing whether the reasons for Utley's departure from Myron were personal or work-related. The facts before the Board of Review were undisputed, yet the Board affirmed the decision of the appeals examiner based on a mistake of law. While the Court must give deference to an agency's findings of fact, it is not bound by the agency's interpretation of a statute or its determination of a solely legal issue. This is a case where a sudden change of employment caused difficulties in the employee's commute and could properly be regarded as a condition attributable to the work rather than the employee. Utley satisfied his burden under N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a) and N.J.A.C. 12:17-9.1 by showing that he quit his job for good cause attributable to his work. As such, Utley is entitled to unemployment benefits. (Pp. 21-23)
Judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the Division of Unemployment Insurance for a determination of benefits consistent with this opinion.
JUSTICE WALLACE, DISSENTING, in which JUSTICES RIVERA-SOTO and HOENS join, views this case substantially the same as the Board of Review and the Appellate Division: that an employee's loss of transportation to and from work for a two-week period is not attributable to the employee's work, but is entirely personal to him. The fact that Utley is legally blind and therefore protected under the ADA and LAD was not raised as an issue in the case. His conduct in failing to properly notify his employer regarding his need for the two-week vacation did not trigger any accommodation requirement.
CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LONG and LaVECCHIA join in JUSTICE ALBIN'S opinion. JUSTICE WALLACE filed a separate DISSENTING opinion in which JUSTICES RIVERA-SOTO and HOENS join.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Albin
For thirteen years, John Utley worked for the same company, relying on public transportation to get to work because he is visually impaired. After his shift hours were changed to a time when buses were not running, Utley carpooled with a co-worker. However, the company mandated that Utley work overtime, which resulted in his schedule not coinciding with the co-worker. When the co-worker had to leave the country for two weeks, the company refused to allow Utley to take his vacation time during the same two-week period. Without transportation to get home from work and fearing that he would be fired, he instead resigned.
The Board of Review of the Division of Unemployment and Disability Insurance (Board) denied Utley unemployment benefits on the basis that he quit his job "voluntarily without good cause attributable to [his] work." N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a). The Appellate Division affirmed. We now reverse and hold that the undisputed facts support the conclusion that Utley resigned from the company for work-related rather than personal reasons, entitling him to his statutory unemployment benefits.
In 1992, John Utley began working as a material handler for Myron Manufacturing Corporation (Myron) ...