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Lewis M. Seagull v. Board of Review

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


July 22, 2011

LEWIS M. SEAGULL, APPELLANT,
v.
BOARD OF REVIEW, NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF LABOR AND WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT, AND NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, KEAN UNIVERSITY. RESPONDENTS.

On appeal from the Board of Review, Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Docket No. 143,626.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued May 2, 2011

Before Judges Sabatino and Alvarez.

The Division of Unemployment Insurance (Division) determined claimant Lewis Seagull obtained unemployment benefits through false or fraudulent misrepresentation and required him to refund benefits paid in the years 2003, 2004, and 2005. The Division also disqualified him from receipt of future benefits for a term of one year from its completion of the investigation and discovery of the misrepresentation, effective January 29, 2007, and imposed a fine of twenty-five percent of the total of all benefits paid. Seagull now appeals from a Board of Review final decision affirming an Appeal Tribunal and requiring him to refund $15,006, N.J.S.A. 43:21-16(d), disqualifying him from receipt of unemployment benefits for one-year, N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(g)(1), and imposing a fine of $3751.50, N.J.S.A. 43:21-16(a). We affirm.

Seagull essentially underreported his wages from August 30, 2003 through December 20, 2003, did not report wages at all from September 4, 2004 through December 18, 2004, and underreported wages from December 24, 2005 through March 18, 2006. It is undisputed that Seagull was entitled to partial weekly benefits for the periods in question. Since he would have become entitled to the benefits in any event, just over a longer period, Seagull contends whether he received them earlier or later in time is of no consequence and does not make his receipt of benefits improper. He also claims he did not understand the manner in which he was to calculate his wages for the relevant periods.

The Appeal Tribunal, however, found these arguments neither convincing nor credible. In the July 24, 2009 decision ultimately affirmed by the Board of Review, the Appeals Examiner stated that Seagull's inaccurate declaring of partial earnings on the first claim for unemployment benefits, and his failure to declare any earnings on the second unemployment claim is indicative of the claimant's fraudulent behavior to collect more benefits than his entitlement.

Further, the claimant's explanation that he misinterpreted how to claim partial benefits was not credible. His subsequent failure to disclose any earnings on one claim, or attempt to correct any previously estimated earnings, after he received his salary for a semester's work, showed fraudulent behavior on his part.

On appeal, Seagull makes the following points:

POINT I: THE BOARD OF REVIEW ERRED IN APPLYING FINES TO THE TOTAL AMOUNT TO BE REPAID RATHER THAN THE AMOUNT FRAUDULENTLY OBTAINED

POINT II: THERE WAS NO FRAUD INVOLVED IN BENEFITS PAID FOR THE WEEKS ENDING 8/30/03, 9/06/03, 9/04/04, AND 12/24/05

POINT III: THERE WAS NO FRAUD IN THE CLAIMS FOR 2003 OR 2005-06

POINT IV: THE BOARD OF REVIEW ERRED IN DETERMINING THE DATES OF CLAIMANT'S DISQUALIFICATION

POINT V: THE DIVISION OF UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS CONTINUES TO WRONGFULLY DENY CLAIMANT BENEFITS TO WHICH HE IS ENTITLED AND THEREBY DENIES HIM HIS STATUTORY RIGHT TO REPAY AMOUNTS OWED OUT OF FUTURE BENEFITS

POINT VI: CLAIMANT WAS DENIED DUE PROCESS OF LAW BY THE REFUSAL OF DIVISION OF UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS TO PERMIT HIM TO EXAMINE HIS FILE

POINT VII: THE OVERALL PENALTY IMPOSED ON CLAIMANT WAS DISPROPORTIONATE TO THE OFFENSE

Our review of agency determinations is deferential and quite limited, due in large part to its "technical expertise, its superior knowledge of the subject matter area, and its fact-finding role[.]" Messick v. Bd. of Review, ___ N.J. Super. ___, ___ (App. Div. 2011). We "will not overturn a final decision of an administrative agency absent a showing that it was arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable, or that it lacked fair support in the evidence, or that it violated legislative policies expressed or implicit in the act governing the agency." Renan Realty Corp. v. N.J. Dep't of Cmty. Affairs, Bureau of Hous. Insp., 182 N.J. Super. 415, 419 (App. Div. 1981). Furthermore, in reviewing factfindings made during the course of an unemployment benefits 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.'" Brady v. Bd. of Review, 152 N.J. 197, 210 (1997) (quoting Charatan v. Bd. of Review, 200 N.J. Super. 74, 79 (App. Div. 1985)). Where the Board's determination is supported by substantial credible evidence, we may not substitute our conclusions for the agency's determinations, even if we would have reached a different result. Id. at 210.

In this matter, the Appeal Tribunal decided Seagull's claim that his mistaken submissions were the product of innocent misunderstanding was not credible. That determination, together with the other proofs tending to establish benefit overpayments, including his wage documentation, clearly constitute sufficient credible evidence in the record to support the Board's final decision.

Moreover, Seagull's arguments lack internal logic. He contends, for example, that since he would have been entitled to the dollar amount of benefits in any event, just at a later date than when he received them, there was no impropriety in the submission of his claims. Followed to its logical conclusion, the argument means no application for benefits based on under-reported wages could be determined fraudulent until after passage of the entire period of time during which there might be an entitlement to benefits, an absurd result.

Seagull's argument regarding the Division's one-year preclusion of benefits is equally unavailing. There is nothing unconstitutional about the Division's selection of the date of discovery, denominated as the date the investigation into the matter was concluded and the Division satisfied Seagull was not entitled to the benefits he had received, as the date from which the one-year term is calculated. Nothing in the statute prohibits the use of that date. See N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(g)(7). Moreover, it was reasonable for the agency to start running the clock only once it was certain of the underlying circumstances.

Seagull does not elaborate as to how the Director's decision not to allow him to review his unemployment file was a violation of due process or how his appeal was thereby prejudiced. Therefore, this assertion also lacks merit.

Finally, Seagull argues the fine imposed upon him under N.J.S.A. 43:21-16(a) should be only twenty-five percent of the amount wrongfully paid over and above the sums to which he would have been entitled had he accurately reported his earnings. We do not agree. Although the statute says, as Seagull points out, that the twenty-five percent fine is calculated on the amount "fraudulently obtained," we accept the agency's position that the phrase does not refer only to the excess proceeds to which a claimant was not entitled. Rather, it most sensibly refers to all benefits tainted by a fraudulent submission. "Fraudulently obtained" in this context thus means the entire benefit, not the difference between the sums actually received and what the claimant would have been entitled to had he submitted an accurate claim. Although we understand the contrary interpretation of Section 16(a) offered by appellant, "'[a]n administrative agency's interpretation of statutes and regulations within its implementing and enforcing responsibility is ordinarily entitled to our deference.'" Wnuck v. N.J. Div. of Motor Vehicles, 337 N.J. Super. 52, 56 (App. Div. 2001) (quoting In re Appeal by Progressive Cas. Ins. Co., 307 N.J. Super. 93, 102 (App. Div. 1997)). We are accordingly obligated to affirm the Board of Review's final decision in its entirety.

Affirmed.

20110722

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