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Lipton v. Board of Review

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


November 10, 2009

SUSAN LIPTON, APPELLANT,
v.
BOARD OF REVIEW, DEPARTMENT OF LABOR AND NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF INDUSTRIAL AND OFFICE PROPERTIES NEW JERSEY CHAPTER, RESPONDENTS.

On appeal from the Board of Review, Department of Labor, Docket No. 177,206.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted: October 28, 2009

Before Judges Axelrad and Espinosa.

Susan Lipton appeals from the final decision of the Board of Review (Board) which held her disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits. The record amply demonstrates that appellant resigned due to dissatisfaction with her annual bonus, which was lower than the previous year, a circumstance the Board correctly determined to be a disqualifying event. We, therefore, affirm.

New Jersey's Unemployment Compensation Law, N.J.S.A. 43:21-1 to -24.4, "protects not only workers who are involuntarily unemployed -- those who are laid-off or terminated from their jobs by their employers -- but also those who voluntarily quit their jobs for good cause attributable to their work." Utley v. Bd. of Review, 194 N.J. 534, 543-44 (2008). Here, appellant was not terminated but instead resigned, thus posing the question whether she should be disqualified from receiving benefits because, as argued by her employer and held by the Board, appellant "left work voluntarily without good cause attributable to such work. . . ." N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a).

The employee has the burden of proving that the voluntary quit of the workplace was with good cause attributable to the work. Morgan v. Bd. of Review, 77 N.J. Super. 209, 213 (App. Div. 1962). We have observed that "[w]hile the statute does not define 'good cause,' our courts have construed the statute 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) (citations omitted). In defining those circumstances which meet the requirement, we have said:

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 . . . . [Id. at 288 (internal citations and quotations omitted).]

In essence, in determining whether the employee voluntarily left employment for good cause attributable to the work, such employee must show that he or she did all that was "necessary and reasonable in order to remain employed." Heulitt v. Bd. of Review, 300 N.J. Super. 407, 414 (App. Div. 1997) (quoted with approval in Utley, supra, 194 N.J. at 549, and Brady v. Bd. of Review, 152 N.J. 197, 214 (1997)).

Clearly, such a test is fact sensitive. Utley, supra, 194 N.J. at 550. As a result, when its findings of fact are challenged on appeal, we will defer to the agency so long as there is credible evidence in the record to support them. Brady, supra, 152 N.J. at 210.

Here, the record reveals that appellant was employed as a chapter administrator of the National Association of Industrial and Office Parks, New Jersey Chapter (the employer) from July 19, 1994 until January 4, 2008. Appellant did not have a contract with the employer. In December 2007, the employer's chief executive officer and appellant's immediate supervisor, Michael McGuiness, had a confidential meeting with the Compensation Review Committee to discuss annual raises and bonuses for the employees. Despite revenues being down significantly for 2007, a decision was reached that appellant be given a raise of 2.5% and a year-end bonus of $7,250. Additionally, an extra amount was placed into appellant's pension fund. When McGuiness conveyed the figures to appellant, she was upset that her raise and bonus were slightly lower than the previous year. She promptly submitted her letter of resignation on January 4, 2008, effective immediately, providing no reason for her resignation. Several days later, appellant wrote a letter to her employer's board members, stating that her resignation was involuntary, although it is undisputed appellant was not fired and no one requested her resignation.

Appellant filed a claim for unemployment benefits alleging she was forced to resign as a result of her employer's unjustifiable ridicule, publicly embarrassing her by discussing her medical condition, and intentionally harassing her, which adversely affected her health. An initial hearing resulted in a determination that appellant left work voluntarily without good cause attributable to the work - she was "dissatisfied with [her] working conditions [and] did not exhaust all opportunities to resolve the problems with [her] employer before leaving" -and was thus disqualified for benefits. She appealed. Following a hearing, the Appeal Tribunal affirmed the disqualification of benefits, finding as follows:

The claimant's leaving of the work because she felt the amount she received for 2007 was insufficient and decided to leave the job 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's allegations regarding her employer's exhibiting inappropriate behavior towards her during her employment has been rejected by the Appeal Tribunal based [upon] her inability to provide evidence to support any specific incident. The claimant left work voluntarily without good cause attributable to such work. Therefore, she is disqualified for benefits as of 12/30/2007 in accordance with N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a).

On July 29, 2008, the Board mailed appellant a final determination affirming the decision of the Appeal Tribunal. This appeal ensued.

Appellant renews the arguments made to the agency regarding her allegations of improper conduct by her employer which she claims created an unhealthy and hostile work environment that was "so compelling as to give her no choice but to leave the employment." See N.J.A.C. 12:17-9.l(b) (defining good cause as a "reason related directly to the individual's employment, which was so compelling as to give the individual no choice but to leave the employment"). Appellant claims the hearing officer improperly fixated on her frustration with her inadequate bonus and ignored her legitimate complaints about the employer's behavior.

We have a limited role in reviewing the decisions of an administrative agency; an appellate court should not substitute its judgment for that of the agency, but should defer to the agency's findings when supported by credible evidence and when the agency's judgment is neither arbitrary, capricious nor unreasonable. Brady, supra, 152 N.J. at 210; Mullarney v. Bd. of Review, 343 N.J. Super. 401, 406 (App. Div. 2001).

Applying this highly deferential standard, we find no occasion to interfere with the Board's findings. The record amply supports the Board's conclusion that appellant resigned from her position because she was dissatisfied with the year-end bonus that she received, which was lower than that of previous years. See DeSantis v. Bd. of Review, 149 N.J. Super. 35, 38 (App. Div. 1977) (holding that absent a contractual obligation on the part of the employer regarding salary increments, an employee's frustration caused by not receiving an expected pay raise does not constitute good cause for leaving employment within the unemployment statute). The employer's confidential decision-making process cannot be characterized as outrageous or unconscionable action as appellant was never guaranteed that she would receive the same amount of bonus every year and, furthermore, the employer had lower net revenues than the prior years.

Moreover, mere dissatisfaction with the workplace environment is insufficient to constitute good cause for leaving the employment. Stressful conditions are not uncommon in a work place, nor are personality conflicts or perceived pettiness of co-workers and supervisors, and are not "real, substantial and reasonable circumstances" for voluntarily leaving the ranks of the employed. See Domenico, supra, 192 N.J. Super. at 287. Additionally, as noted by the Board, appellant failed to present sufficient credible evidence under the case law of specific incidents of inappropriate behavior by her employer. We further note that where the asserted good cause is a medical condition attributable to or caused by the work, it is incumbent upon the claimant to establish by competent medical evidence that her leaving work was medically necessary due to that condition. Brown v. Bd. of Review, 117 N.J. Super. 399, 402-04 (App. Div. l971). Appellant has failed to carry that burden.

Affirmed.

20091110

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