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Fisher v. Board of Review

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


September 8, 2010

JULIE LYNNE FISHER, APPELLANT,
v.
BOARD OF REVIEW, DEPARTMENT OF LABOR AND RESCARE, INC., RESPONDENTS.

On appeal from the Board of Review, Department of Labor, Docket No. 188,604.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted August 31, 2010

Before Judges LeWinn and J.N. Harris.

Appellant appeals from the December 5, 2008 Final Decision of the Board of Review (Board) affirming the decision of the Appeal Tribunal finding that she left work voluntarily without good cause attributable to the work, disqualifying her for unemployment benefits and requiring her to refund benefits previously paid. We affirm.

The factual background pertinent to our decision may be summarized as follows, based upon the evidence presented before the Appeal Tribunal. Appellant was employed as "a social development manager[,]" with Edison Job Corps (Edison) at a facility known as Rescare, a juvenile residential facility. She began full-time employment there on October 9, 2007. On her application, she had stated that she had "two doctorates[] . . . . [Her employer] referred to her as Dr. Fisher and . . . paid her on the scale of being a doctor . . . ."

Apparently, however, appellant never provided credentials supporting the two doctorates claimed on her application, notwithstanding numerous requests for such information from her employer. Appellant claimed that she had her secretary, Warliene Allston, send the necessary documentation to Terry McDonald, Human Resources Manager at appellant's worksite. McDonald, however, testified that she never received such documentation.

The gravamen of appellant's claims as to why she left employment related to alleged acts of sexual harassment by Lee Matthews, the director of Rescare. Appellant claimed that she filed grievances with her employer, specifically with Matthew Westfall, the Director of Labor Relations at Edison. Westfall investigated and interviewed Matthews who denied the allegations. Westfall concluded that appellant's claims were unsubstantiated, as there were no witnesses and the situation was one of appellant's claims versus Matthews' denials.

Westfall also testified that, from the day appellant was hired, he and other representatives of the employer constantly asked her to provide credentials as to her claimed doctorates.

On February 22, 2008, McDonald informed Julie Caldwell, the Human Resources Director for Rescare, that appellant had failed to provide proof of her claimed doctorate degrees. Caldwell then determined that appellant would be suspended for failure to comply with this requirement. On March 5, 2008, Caldwell advised appellant that she had until April 9, 2008 to provide the required documentation or face termination.

Westfall also met with appellant to discuss her failure to provide proof of her doctorate degrees, and stated that he advised appellant that she would be terminated for falsifying her job application if she did not provide the necessary documentation. This conversation took place in a meeting between appellant and Westfall on March 28, 2008. At that time, appellant stated that she would resign, but she sought a severance package. Westfall then offered her such a package, which she accepted.

At no time did appellant provide either her employer or the Appeal Tribunal hearing officer with proof of her doctorate degrees, notwithstanding a specific request by the hearing officer at the conclusion of the first hearing day that appellant fax the documentation to the officer.

Allston testified as a witness on behalf of appellant; however, she was never asked specifically regarding appellant's claim that Allston had sent the required credentials to McDonald. Allston was, however, aware that appellant had been suspended. When the hearing officer concluded her questioning of Allston, she asked appellant if she had "any questions" for the witness, to which appellant replied: "Not at this time[;] I may refer to her later."

On August 8, 2008, the Appeal Tribunal rendered its decision, which recited the following findings of fact:

The claimant was employed as a social development manager for the above-named employer from 10/09/07 through 03/28/08, when she left the job voluntarily.

The claimant indicated on her employment application that she possessed two doctorate degrees and was paid accordingly. On 02/14/08, the employer requested verification of these degrees from the claimant.

On 02/15/08, the claimant wrote a memo to her supervisor complaining about alleged unwanted advances from the director. The employer conducted an investigation of the claimant's complaint and found no evidence of harassment.

On 02/22/08, the claimant was suspended through 03/05/08, for failure to provide evidence of her degrees. The employer met with the claimant on 03/05/08 and she was granted an extension to provide the documents by 04/09/08.

On 03/26/08, the claimant submitted her resignation within an eleven page narrative of her complaints and a request for severance pay, reimbursement of relocation expenses and payment of all vacation time accrued.

As of 07/31/08, the claimant has not provided evidence of her degrees to neither [sic] the employer not [sic] this Appeal Tribunal as requested.

An initial claim for benefits was filed as of 04/06/08, establishing a weekly benefit rate of $560.00 and a maximum benefit amount of $14,560.00. Benefits were paid on this claim.

On December 5, 2008, the Board issued its Final Decision affirming the decision of the Appeal Tribunal. The Board concluded that "[s]ince . . . appellant was given a full and impartial hearing and a complete opportunity to offer any and all evidence, there is no valid ground for a further hearing."

On appeal, appellant raises the following contention for our consideration:

CLAIMANT'S LEAVING HER JOB WITH EMPLOYER IN ORDER TO TAKE A BETTER POSITION*fn1 BECAUSE OF FACTORS RELATED TO THE WORK CONSTITUTES GOOD CAUSE ATTRIBUTABLE TO THE WORK AND, THEREFORE, SHE SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN DISQUALIFIED FOR BENEFITS.

Having reviewed this contention in light of the record and controlling legal principles, we are satisfied that it was "without sufficient merit to warrant discussion[,]" R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E), beyond the following.

The scope of our review in an appeal from a final decision of a state administrative agency is strictly limited. Univ. Cottage Club v. N.J. Dep't of Envtl. Prot., 191 N.J. 38, 48 (2007) (citing In re Taylor, 158 N.J. 644, 656 (1999)). "In light of the executive function of administrative agencies, judicial capacity to review administrative actions is severely limited." George Harms Constr. Co. v. N.J. Tpk. Auth., 137 N.J. 8, 27 (1994). We may only reverse a final decision of an administrative agency "in those rare circumstances" when the "agency['s] action is clearly inconsistent with its statutory mission or with other State policy." Ibid.

Our review of a final decision of an administrative agency is limited to four inquiries: 1) whether the decision is contrary to either the State or Federal Constitution; 2) whether the decision violates express or implied legislative policies; 3) whether the record contains substantial evidence to support the findings on which the agency based its decision; and 4) whether the agency clearly erred in applying the legislative policies to the facts by reaching a decision that could not reasonably have been made on a showing of the relevant factors. Ibid.

"Unless a [c]court finds that the agency's action was arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable, the agency's ruling should not be disturbed." Brady v. Bd. of Review, 152 N.J. 197, 210 (1997). We do not substitute our judgment for that of the agency, even if we come to a different conclusion. In re Carter, 191 N.J. 473, 484 (2007).

With these standards in mind, we consider appellant's contention that she had proven her required educational obtainment of a [b]achelor's degree for her . . . position, [and Matthews] then requested additional copies of her Masters and Doctoral Studies, which were obtained under a different last name. Mr. Matthews knew that [appellant] was uncomfortable with his knowledge of her involvement with [a] former National Director that he tried to unveil her past through intimidation.

At no point does appellant address the testimony by Westfall and McDonald that she continually failed to provide documentation of her claimed advanced degrees; this information was of critical importance to the employer since appellant had received an enhanced salary commensurate with those degrees. As noted, appellant was clearly advised that failure to furnish this information would lead to the termination of her employment. In response to that warning, appellant negotiated a severance package.

Under the circumstances, we are satisfied that appellant left her employment with Rescare voluntarily and not for good cause.

Although "good cause" is not statutorily defined, New Jersey courts have construed the phrase to mean "cause sufficient to justify an employee's voluntarily leaving the ranks of the employed and joining the ranks of the unemployed." The test of "ordinary common sense and prudence" must be utilized to determine whether an employee's decision to leave work constitutes good cause. Such cause "must be compelled by real, substantial and reasonable circumstances not imaginary, trifling and whimsical ones." A claimant has the "responsibility to do whatever is necessary and reasonable in order to remain employed." [Brady, supra, 152 N.J. at 214 (citations omitted).]

Here, the record demonstrates not only appellant's failure to establish good cause for leaving her employment with Rescare, but also the employer's valid reason for terminating her employment. In short, appellant was directly responsible for her termination, by repeatedly failing to respond to requests for documentation of her doctorate degrees. As noted, both the employer and the Appeal Tribunal hearing officer requested this documentation, and appellant responded to neither request. Moreover, her claims regarding sexual harassment by Matthews were found unsubstantiated by the employer; as the hearing officer found, appellant's "allegations of harassment were investigated by the employer and deemed unfounded."

We agree with the Board that appellant's reliance upon Rider Coll. v. Bd. of Review, 167 N.J. Super. 42, 48 (App. Div. 1979), is misplaced; in fact appellant misapprehends our holding in that case. There, we concluded that leaving one's place of employment to accept a "better" position alone did not constitute "good cause" under the statute. Ibid. This decision lends no support to appellant's position.

In sum, we are satisfied that the Board's decision is supported by sufficient credible, competent evidence in the record. Clowes v. Terminex Int'l., Inc., 109 N.J. 575, 587 (1988).

Affirmed.


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