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Natalie T. Davis v. Board of Review

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


February 18, 2011

NATALIE T. DAVIS, APPELLANT,
v.
BOARD OF REVIEW, DEPARTMENT OF LABOR, AND AAA MID-ATLANTIC, INC., RESPONDENTS.

On appeal from the Board of Review, Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Docket No. 248,753.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted December 13, 2010

Before Judges Sabatino and Alvarez.

Natalie T. Davis ("claimant") appeals the Board of Review's final agency decision of December 17, 2009, which upheld an October 16, 2009 ruling by the Appeal Tribunal. After conducting a telephonic hearing in which claimant and a representative of her former employer, AAA Mid-Atlantic, Inc. ("AAA") testified, the Appeal Tribunal concluded that claimant is ineligible for unemployment compensation under N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a), given the circumstances that led to her discharge by AAA in August 2009.

The factual record developed at the administrative hearing reflects that claimant worked as a member relations coordinator at AAA's offices in Hamilton. On April 24, 2009, claimant took a leave of absence from work because of a short-term disability for depression and panic attacks. The leave of absence was initially supported by a letter provided by AAA's third-party administrator, Prudential, which had approved the leave through June 26, 2009. Prudential's letter instructed claimant that if she sought to extend her leave of absence, she would need to follow up and provide copies of treatment records and other documentation.

On June 29, 2009, claimant telephoned AAA's human resource specialist, Christina Horton, and represented to Horton that her doctor had recommended an extension of her disability leave for another month to July 30, 2009. According to her testimony, Horton explained to claimant that she needed to contact Prudential to pursue an authorized extension. In the meantime, Horton advised claimant that AAA would hold claimant's position open through July 31, 2009, i.e., the day after her doctor was releasing her to resume work, at which time she would be expected to return to her duties. AAA's Director of HR Customer Service, Maria Breeser, followed up that conversation with a letter to claimant dated July 28, 2009, providing additional instructions.

Despite these arrangements, claimant failed to appear for work on the agreed-upon date of July 31, 2009, nor did she timely obtain approval from Prudential to extend her short-term disability. Consequently, Breeser sent claimant another letter dated August 10, 2009, requesting her to contact Horton by August 17, 2009.

Although claimant admitted in her testimony that she received Breeser's letters, she failed to contact Horton by the final deadline of August 17, 2009. Nor did she return to work during that two-week interval. In light of these failures, AAA terminated claimant, effective August 18, 2009.

According to claimant's testimony, she spoke with a representative at Prudential prior to her discharge. She recalled that the Prudential representative was not satisfied with her doctor's note extending her disability status, and that more information about her diagnosis and condition was needed. She contended that she thereafter provided some additional information to Prudential. Nonetheless, the record is bereft of any proof that Prudential approved an extension of claimant's disability prior to the July 31, 2009 deadline.

Having considered the respective testimony of the parties and the related documents, the Appeal Tribunal concluded that claimant was ineligible for benefits because she had not returned from her scheduled leave of absence on the date agreed upon with her employer, and had made no timely attempt to contact her employer upon the expiration of her leave. The Appeal Tribunal found that claimant's failure to return to her duties was voluntary and not arising out of good cause attributable to the work. The Board of Review affirmed the opinion of the Appeal Tribunal and found no ground for a further hearing.

Claimant now appeals the administrative determination, contending that it was arbitrary and capricious, that she had omitted extenuating facts from her testimony at the hearing, and that she had delayed in picking up her mail from AAA at her mother's residence. The employer and the Board of Review argue, in response, that the agency's decision should be upheld.

Our scope of review in unemployment matters is limited. We accord particular deference to the expertise of the Board of Review in such matters, and its repeated construction and application of the applicable statutes. See, e.g., Brady v. Bd. of Review, 152 N.J. 197, 210 (1997); Doering v. Bd. of Review, 203 N.J. Super. 241, 245 (App. Div. 1985). Moreover, in reviewing the factual findings in unemployment compensation proceedings, "'the test is not whether [we] would come to the same conclusion if the original determination was [ours] to make, but rather whether the factfinder could reasonably so conclude upon the proofs.'" Brady, supra, 152 N.J. at 210 (quoting Charatan v. Bd. of Review, 200 N.J. Super. 74, 79 (App. Div. 1985)). "If the Board's factual findings are supported 'by sufficient credible evidence, [we] are obliged to accept them.'" Brady, supra, 152 N.J. at 210 (quoting Self v. Bd. of Review, 91 N.J. 453, 459 (1982); Goodman v. London Metals Exch., Inc., 86 N.J. 19, 28-29 (1981) (same)). We also give due regard to the agency's credibility findings. Logan v. Bd. of Review, 299 N.J. Super. 346, 348 (App. Div. 1997) (citing Jackson v. Concord Co., 54 N.J. 113, 117 (1969)). Unless the agency's action "was arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable, the agency's ruling should not be disturbed." Brady, supra, 152 N.J. at 210.

Applying these standards, we affirm the Board of Review's final agency decision. The Board correctly applied N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a), which disentitles a claimant to benefits when he or she resigns voluntarily without good cause attributable to the work. See also N.J.A.C. 12:17-9.1. Good cause in this context "means 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." N.J.A.C. 12:17-9.1(b). Causes personal to a claimant that are not shown to be attributable to the work itself do not satisfy the statutory requirement. White v. Bd. of Review, 146 N.J. Super. 268, 270 (App. Div. 1977); Stauhs v. Bd. of Review, 93 N.J. Super. 451, 457-58 (App. Div. 1967).

We are satisfied that the Board's decision is supported by substantial evidence in this record, is neither arbitrary or capricious, and is in conformity with the legal standards expressed in the statute and in the associated case law. We appreciate that claimant asserts that she had extenuating reasons for not adequately following up with her employer and with the third-party administrator before the established deadline for her return to work. However, her testimony in that regard was reasonably found to be unpersuasive by the Appeal Tribunal, and, in any event, bespeaks personal reasons that, as matter of law, are not "attributable to the work" as required to establish good cause under N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a).

Affirmed.

20110218

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