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Goodman v. Board of Review


December 4, 2008


On appeal from the Board of Review, Department of Labor, Docket No. 153,591.

Per curiam.


Submitted November 12, 2008

Before Judges Yannotti and LeWinn.

Lennette Goodman appeals from a final determination of the Board of Review, which found that Goodman was disqualified for unemployment compensation benefits. We affirm.

In May 2007, Goodman was employed as a claims adjuster by Cannon Cochran Management Services, Inc. She had been working for the company since October 2001. Goodman resigned her position with the company on May 11, 2007. She filed a claim for unemployment benefits, as of May 20, 2007. The Deputy Director of the Division of Unemployment and Disability Insurance found Goodman ineligible for benefits. Goodman filed an appeal from that determination, and the Appeal Tribunal conducted a hearing in the matter on July 13, 2007.

At the hearing, Goodman testified that she left the job on May 11, 2007, after having given the employer one week's notice. Goodman said that she quit "because of an accumulation of work related issues." Goodman asserted that the "final issue" that caused her to leave was that she had an "abundance of work" and had been criticized because a co-worker had volunteered to help her out.

Goodman said that the company had been satisfied with her work and, if she had not been reprimanded, she would have stayed. Goodman spoke with one of her supervisors, who told her that she sympathized with her and that she "should think about [her] decision to leave[.]" Goodman considered the matter but chose to quit "because of other work related issues."

Goodman explained that, in March 2007, a co-worker went out on temporary disability leave and, while she was out, Goodman's "job duties doubled." Goodman decided not to leave at that time. The other employee returned to work in June 2007. Goodman also said that she had been seeing a psychiatrist because of the stress of the work and her supervisor. Goodman asserted that the supervisor had "been very difficult to work with."

Goodman additionally testified that she was in Kentucky from May 25, 2007 through May 28, 2007. Goodman said that she went to Kentucky to visit her sister over the Memorial Day weekend. Goodman stated that she had not been looking for work in Kentucky.

The Appeal Tribunal issued a decision on July 18, 2007, in which it found that Goodman resigned "after receiving criticism from her employer [because she had] accept[ed] help from a co-worker." The Appeal Tribunal held that Goodman left work without good cause attributable to her job and therefore was disqualified for benefits under N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a). The Appeal Tribunal also found that, because Goodman was out of state on personal business from May 25, 2007 to May 28, 2007, she was unavailable for work from May 20, 2007 through June 2, 2007 and disqualified for benefits in that period pursuant to N.J.S.A. 43:21-4(c). Goodman appealed to the Board, which issued a decision on September 13, 2007, affirming the decision of the Appeal Tribunal. This appeal followed.

Goodman argues that she left her job due to mental health issues that arose initially when her mother passed away. She asserts that the stress of her job aggravated that condition. She maintains that leaving her job for these reasons constitutes good cause attributable to the work and, therefore, the Board erred by finding her ineligible for benefits.

The scope of our review in an appeal from a final determination of an administrative agency is strictly limited. The agency's decision may not be disturbed unless shown to be arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable. Brady v. Bd. of Review, 152 N.J. 197, 210 (1997) (citing In re Warren, 117 N.J. 295, 296 (1989)). We can only intervene "in those rare circumstances in which an agency action is clearly inconsistent with its statutory mission or with other State policy." Ibid. (quoting George Harms Constr. v. N.J. Tpk. Auth., 137 N.J. 8, 27 (1994)).

Furthermore, "'[i]n reviewing the factual findings made in an unemployment compensation proceeding, the test is not whether an appellate court would come to the same conclusion if the original determination was its to make, but rather whether the factfinder could reasonably so conclude upon the proofs.'" Ibid. (quoting Charatan v. Bd. of Review, 200 N.J. Super. 74, 79 (App. Div. 1985)).

Here, the Board found that Goodman was disqualified for unemployment compensation benefits under N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a), which provides that an individual may not receive benefits if the individual "left work voluntarily without good cause attributable to such work[.]" Although the statute does not define the term "good cause," it has been construed to mean "'cause sufficient to justify an employee's voluntarily leaving the ranks of the employed and joining the ranks of the unemployed.'" Domenico v. Bd. of Review, 192 N.J. Super. 284, 287 (App. Div. 1983) (quoting Condo v. Bd. of Review, 158 N.J. Super. 172, 174 (App. Div. 1978)).

The test for determining whether an employee's decision to leave work constitutes "good cause" is one of "'ordinary common sense and prudence.'" Brady, supra, 152 N.J. at 214 (quoting Zielenski v. Bd. of Review, 85 N.J. Super. 46, 52 (App. Div. 1964)). The employee's decision to quit "'must be compelled by real, substantial and reasonable circumstances not imaginary, trifling and whimsical ones.'" Ibid. (quoting Domenico, supra, 192 N.J. Super. at 288). "A claimant has the 'responsibility to do whatever is necessary and reasonable in order to remain employed.'" Ibid. (quoting Heulitt v. Bd. of Review, 300 N.J. Super. 407, 414 (App. Div. 1997)).

We are convinced that the record supports the Board's finding that Goodman left her job "without good cause attributable to the work." N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a). As stated previously, Goodman testified that she left her position because she had been criticized by her supervisor but, whether warranted or not, criticism by a supervisor "may be expected in the normal course of employment." Associated Utils. Servs., Inc. v. Bd. of Review, 131 N.J. Super. 584, 589 (App. Div. 1974). See also Gerber v. Bd. of Review, 313 N.J. Super. 37, 40 (App. Div. 1998) (holding that a supervisor's on-the-spot reprimand was not "good cause" under N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a) for the employee's decision to leave work).

Goodman additionally argues that she justifiably left her job for health-related reasons that were "attributable to the work." She asserts that the stress of the job aggravated her existing mental health problems. However, to support a claim for unemployment compensation benefits on this basis, the claimant must present competent medical evidence to show that a pre-existing medical condition was aggravated by conditions in the workplace. Israel v. Bd. of Review, 283 N.J. Super. 1, 5 (App. Div. 1995), certif. denied, 143 N.J. 326 (1996). The claimant must present more than an "equivocal statement" from a doctor that his or her "work 'may' have aggravated [the] condition." Wojcik v. Bd. of Review, 58 N.J. 341, 344 (1971). See also N.J.A.C. 12:17-9.3(d) (requiring that when an individual leaves work for health or medical reasons, a medical certification is required to establish that the employee left the job for good cause attributable to the work).

To support her contention that she left her job for health-related reasons attributable to her work, Goodman relies upon certain records relating to treatment she received at the emergency room of a hospital in April 2005. A "physician record" written at that time stated that Goodman had stress at work and was suffering from a major depressive disorder. In addition, a nurse's "triage note" stated that Goodman was "stressed [at] work" and had "thoughts of killing [her] boss[.]" The records from Goodman's hospital visit in 2005 also indicate that Goodman was discharged in a stable condition and medication was prescribed. The records further indicate that, in addition to her complaints about her job, Goodman had complained about housing and financial problems.

Goodman additionally relies upon a letter dated July 30, 2007 from Dr. Joseph S. Vetrano, in which he states that Goodman has been his patient since November 2003 and was being treated for depression. Therapy ended in March 2004 but Goodman was seen thereafter on a regular basis, "usually every one to three months, depending on how she was doing." Dr. Vetrano states:

In November 2006, [Goodman] reported problems at work with her immediate supervisor. She was mildly agitated during that visit. The next mention of a problem was her March 2007 visit. Reportedly she was asked to attend some [counseling] session as a result of statements she had made. She reported to me that [she] was told she did not need counseling by the evaluator. In May she reported that because of increasing discomfort in her work setting, she had decided to leave and seek other employment.

Each of the above incidents caused her stress and affected her moods. At her visit on 7/18/07, I was concerned enough about her that I asked her to return in two weeks, rather than the usual four weeks.

Notwithstanding Goodman's assertions to the contrary, the evidence fails to support her claim that she left her job on May 11, 2007 for good cause attributable to the work. Although the hospital records from 2005 indicate that Goodman may have experienced stress at that time, it appears that it was not due solely to her employment. Moreover, Goodman continued in her job and remained there until May 2007. Thus, it may be fairly assumed that the working conditions did not adversely affect Goodman's mental health to such an extent that she was compelled to leave the position in May 2007.

In addition, although Dr. Vetrano states in his letter of July 30, 2007, that Goodman's "problems" at work caused stress and "affected her moods," there is no evidence that he ever recommended that Goodman leave her job for medical reasons. Furthermore, Dr. Vetrano did not state that the conditions in the workplace in 2007 had aggravated Goodman's health condition to such a degree that she was compelled to leave her job. The evidence therefore supports the Board's finding that Goodman left work voluntarily "without good cause attributable to the work." N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a).

As stated previously, the Board also found that Goodman was disqualified for benefits pursuant to N.J.S.A. 43:21-4(c) from May 20, 2007 to June 2, 2007 because she was not available for work in that period. In her brief, Goodman does not challenge that finding. In any event, her own testimony at the hearing established that she was, in fact, out of state and not available for work at that time.



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