September 27, 2010
JUDITH M. CASAZZA, APPELLANT,
BOARD OF REVIEW, DEPARTMENT OF LABOR, AND PORTER, GOLDBERG AND MARTIN, RESPONDENTS.
On appeal from a Final Decision of the Board of Review, Department of Labor, Docket No. 221,395.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted September 14, 2010
Before Judges Yannotti and Espinosa.
Appellant Judith M. Casazza (Casazza) appeals from a final determination of the Board of Review (Board), which found that she is disqualified from unemployment compensation benefits pursuant to N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a) and required her to refund the $1,512 in benefits that had been paid to her for the weeks ending January 24, 2009 through February 14, 2009. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.
The following are the most relevant facts. Beginning on June 23, 2008, Casazza was employed as a full-time receptionist for a group of practicing oral surgeons. On January 7, 2009, Casazza resigned her position with the group. In her letter of resignation, Casazza stated that she had been called that day to a meeting with Barbara Smith (Smith), the office manager, and Dr. Kenneth Goldberg (Goldberg), one of the surgeons in the office.
At the meeting, Goldberg told Casazza that he had received complaints from patients and other doctors' offices about her behavior. Goldberg said that Casazza's conduct would not be tolerated and she had to change. In her letter of resignation, Casazza wrote that she was taken off guard by these "accusations" because she had worked hard and performed the job "beyond most normal expectations."
Casazza also wrote that the office's "hours and expectations" had been "very stressful" but she had "always [been] there when needed, sometimes at the expense of [her] personal responsibilities." Casazza additionally wrote that, although she had intended that her resignation would take effect immediately, Smith had persuaded her to remain until a replacement was hired or for two additional weeks.
Casazza left the job on January 12, 2009, and on January 18, 2009, filed a claim for unemployment compensation benefits. On March 12, 2009, a deputy claims examiner issued a determination finding that Casazza was disqualified from benefits pursuant to N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a) from January 11, 2009, because she left work voluntarily without good cause attributable to the work. At about the same time, the Director of the Division of Unemployment Insurance issued to Casazza a request for a refund of the $1,512 in benefits she had been paid for the weeks ending January 24, 2009 through February 14, 2009.
On March 12, 2009, Casazza sought review by the Appeal Tribunal of the deputy claims examiner's determination. An appeals examiner conducted a hearing in the matter on March 31, 2009. At the hearing, Casazza testified that there was "a lot of stress going on in the office[.]" Casazza stated that, when she was hired, she expected the job would be a four-day-a-week position but she began to work a five-day week because the person hired for the full-time position "never showed up[.]"
Casazza said that the office was "very short staffed" and, although she had "a dental background," Casazza did not have a "medical background." Casazza felt stress because she was not familiar with medical procedures. Casazza also had concerns about the biopsy reports and she was not familiar with "calling in" medications. She testified, however, that initially she was not reprimanded or told she was not doing a good job.
Casazza further testified that, shortly before Christmas of 2008, an incident occurred with a patient that "totally stressed [her] out[.]" Casazza stated that a young man had come into the office. There was a question as to whether the patient had insurance coverage and he told her to check his coverage on the computer. Casazza said she was not familiar with how to verify his coverage and her co-worker also could not check on it. Casazza told the patient he would have to pay up front.
According to Casazza, the patient "stormed out" of the office and returned forty-five minutes later. He handed her further information about his insurance. Casazza reported the matter to Dr. Bradford Porter (Porter), who said he would handle the situation. Later, the patient told Casazza that "somebody" had made his Christmas "miserable and he was going to make somebody else's Christmas miserable." Casazza testified that the patient told her that she did not know who she "was messing with."
Casazza said she started "shaking." She called her boyfriend and also reported the matter to Porter. When the patient was leaving the office, he again acted in a manner that upset Casazza. The father of another patient, who was in the office at the time, agreed to walk Casazza out to her car and follow her when she drove out of town in order to ensure that she was safe. Casazza contacted the local police department when she got home. She later filed an incident report with the police.
Casazza's counsel asserted that Casazza had been treated by a physician for work-related stress and the doctor had prescribed certain medications for that condition. Counsel provided the appeal examiner with documents pertaining to the treatment and prescriptions. Casazza stated that the stress was work related. She acknowledged, however, that her doctor had not suggested that she leave the job.
Casazza further testified that she was taken aback by Goldberg's criticism of her work. She said that she decided to quit the job on January 7, 2009 because she found another position that was due to start on January 26, 2009. As noted previously, Casazza submitted her letter of resignation on January 7, 2009. On January 23, 2009, Casazza's prospective employer informed her that it was withdrawing the job offer.
Porter testified that while Casazza told him that the patient who came to the office on December 24, 2008 was being disruptive, she never told him that she felt threatened to the point that she needed someone to escort her home. Porter additionally testified that some of the office's patients had complained about the way Casazza treated them at the front desk. A receptionist from the office of another doctor had complained about the manner in which Casazza had handled a request for x-rays. Porter stated that, before Casazza resigned, she never indicated that she would be leaving.
The Appeal Tribunal issued a decision, which was mailed to the parties on April 8, 2009. The appeals examiner wrote that Casazza did not leave the job due to legitimate concerns about the incident with the patient on December 24, 2008. The examiner noted that there was no evidence indicating that the incident would escalate. The examiner also noted that Casazza had returned to her job after the incident.
In addition, the appeal examiner found that Casazza had not been exposed to a hostile work environment in the office. Rather, Casazza had been "dissatisfied with the verbal reprimand she received regarding her behavior and attitude in the workplace." The examiner also found that there was insufficient medical evidence to support Casazza's assertion that she left her position for medical reasons.
The appeal examiner therefore determined that Casazza was disqualified from benefits pursuant to N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a) because she left her job voluntarily without good cause attributable to the work. He also determined that Casazza was liable pursuant to N.J.S.A. 43:21-16(d) to refund the benefits she had been erroneously paid.
Casazza filed an appeal to the Board from the Appeal Tribunal's decision. The Board issued a final determination in the matter, which was mailed to the parties on June 24, 2009. The Board found that the record did not support Casazza's assertion that she left her job because of a perceived threat from the patient on December 24, 2008. The Board noted that Casazza had returned to work after the incident, continued to work in the office until she believed she had been unfairly reprimanded by her employer, and never mentioned in her letter of resignation that she was leaving the job because of any fear of physical harm.
The Board therefore upheld the Appeal Tribunal's finding that Casazza was disqualified from benefits pursuant to N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a) and found that she was liable to refund the $1,512 in benefits that had been erroneously paid to her. This appeal followed.
On appeal, Casazza argues that she left her position for medical reasons that constituted good cause attributable to her work under N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a). Casazza also argues that she should not have been disqualified from receiving unemployment compensation benefits.
The scope of our review in an appeal from a final determination of an administrative agency is strictly limited. An administrative 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)).
Here, the Board found that Casazza was disqualified from unemployment compensation benefits under N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a), which provides that a claimant may not receive benefits if the claimant "left work voluntarily without good cause attributable to such work[.]" Although N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a) 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) (internal quotations omitted)).
We are satisfied that there is sufficient credible evidence in the record to support the Board's finding that Casazza left her job without good cause attributable to the work. The record supports the Board's finding that Casazza left her job, not because of any legitimate concerns for her personal safety, but rather because she objected to the verbal reprimand she received on January 7, 2009.
Moreover, the record does not support Casazza's assertion that work-related stress made it necessary for her to resign her position. A claimant may have good cause under N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a) to leave a job when the working conditions are abnormal and lead to health problems. Domenico, supra, 192 N.J. Super. at 288. However, the claimant must present medical evidence which establishes the claimant's health problems were caused or aggravated by the working conditions. Wojcik v. Bd. of Review, 58 N.J. 341, 344 (1971). Here, Casazza presented evidence that she had been treated for stress but she presented no evidence that she was required to leave the job due to that condition.
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