July 27, 2011
JOANN LANE, APPELLANT,
BOARD OF REVIEW, DEPARTMENT OF LABOR AND STEPHAN T. MASHEL,*FN1 RESPONDENTS.
On appeal from the Board of Review, Department of Labor, Docket No. 252,611.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted April 12, 2011
Before Judges Payne and Hayden.
Claimant, Joann Lane, appeals from a determination by the Board of Review to reject her application for unemployment benefits, affirming the determination of the Appeal Tribunal that Lane had not demonstrated that her termination was imminent or "demonstrated that the working conditions were so severe that [they] supported her leaving with good cause attributable to her work." The Board thus concluded that Lane had left work voluntarily without good cause attributable to the work and was disqualified for benefits as of August 30, 2009, in accordance with N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a).
Before the Appeal Tribunal, Lane argued that from July 2003 until August 28, 2009, she worked for Stephan Mashel, nominally as a paralegal, but that her work was more properly categorized as that of an associate attorney in the field of employment law. She earned a salary of $70,000 per year plus medical benefits. Lane claimed that, throughout the six years of her employment with Mashel, she was subjected to his constant criticism, and that he objected to her writing style and claimed that she had failed to progress during the course of her employment with him.
Although she could give no specific instances of his conduct, Lane testified that after she gave an assignment to Mashel, she could hear him in the next room muttering, engaging in angry outbursts, and moving things around on his desk. She assumed that his conduct was a reaction to her work. As she testified: "He would be at his desk, ranting, raving, muttering under his breath, slamming things on the desk and I'm in the other room listening to this knowing that he's reviewing something and feeling completely you know worthless for all the work that I did for this man and I drafted everything that went out of that office."
Lane also claimed that Mashel questioned her legal analysis in a hostile fashion, and that she frequently was called upon to justify it with applicable precedent. Further, "[h]e was completely frustrated because [she] didn't write like he wrote." Lane testified: "I don't know all the details of everything that he used to say . . . [b]ecause he muttered under his breath all the time. He would call me in there and fight with me about a position I took." "He didn't like the angle that I took on an argument. He didn't agree with the case that I cited and the argument that I came up with."
Lane complained about Mashel's facial expressions, especially in the last six months of her employment. She stated that "[h]e was like grinding his teeth at me" and he "[l]ook[ed] at me like he wanted to hit me."
As a further matter, Lane claimed that Mashel focused his ill temper on her, and that he did not behave in a similar fashion in his interactions with his associate or with a college student who was hired during the summer as a receptionist.
Two days before Lane left her employment, she confronted Mashel regarding his conduct, and he apologized and stated that he got very frustrated by Lane's writing, which had not progressed in the six years of her employment. Lane replied that she was writing to the best of her ability, and that if Mashel was unhappy, he should terminate her employment. He did not do so, but instead stated that he would attempt not to react as had been his custom. However, Lane did not believe that his conduct would change.
Before leaving work that evening, Lane checked Mashel's calendar and discovered that he had scheduled interviews with prospective associates for the following evening. As she had one year before when Mashel hired his first associate, Lane believed that she was to be replaced, figuring that Mashel could not afford to pay her salary as well as that of two associates. However, she did not seek to confirm that fact with Mashel. Instead, she relied on confirmation by the existing associate that her supposition was correct.
Lane testified that the prospect of termination "sent me over the edge." She stated:
Yes. That sent me over the edge on top of what I was going through with him already. It sent me over the edge and I just lost it. I snapped and I was just - physically and mentally I was sick. I couldn't even function in my job duties and it just felt like I couldn't be there another day. . . . I had an emotional breakdown.
Lane testified that she did not receive any medical treatment for her condition.
On August 28, 2009, two days after Lane's meeting with Mashel, she tendered her resignation in a letter to him. Mashel was not in the office on the day that Lane resigned, and there was no testimony that Lane's resignation was precipitated by conduct on the part of Mashel following his meeting with Lane.
Mashel did not participate in the hearing before the Appeal Tribunal. Although there was an earlier factfinding session in which he did participate, no record of that session has been provided on appeal.*fn2
After reviewing the record, which also included a lengthy written submission by Lane, the Appeals Examiner issued a written opinion on December 22, 2009. In it, she rejected as insufficient Lane's unverified assumption that she was imminently to be terminated. The Examiner held: "If the claimant believed she was being replaced, she should have spoken to her employer about her status." The Examiner found the associate's confirmation to have been unreliable. The Examiner also noted that, although Lane had alleged that Mashel yelled, mumbled and criticized her work, she could give no specifics about the yelling and mumbling, and she "did not support her contention that the criticism of her work was harsh or abnormal. Her testimony that the employer complained about the quality of her writing and lack of progression does not support harsh criticism." Thus, the Examiner found that Lane had failed to demonstrate a hostile work environment or that her voluntary departure was for good cause attributable to her work. As we have stated, the Board of Review accepted the Appeals Examiner's findings and affirmed the conclusion that Lane was ineligible for unemployment benefits.
Lane has appealed, arguing that the Board of Review's decision that her termination was not imminent and its decision that she had left work voluntarily without good cause attributable to the work were arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable, given the record in the matter.
Our role in reviewing the decision of the Board of Review is limited. Brady v. Bd. of Review, 152 N.J. 197, 210 (1997). If the Board's factual findings are supported "by sufficient credible evidence, courts are obliged to accept them." Self v. Bd. of Review, 91 N.J. 453, 459 (1982). We must defer to an agency's expertise and superior knowledge of a particular field. Greenwood v. State Police Training Ctr., 127 N.J. 500, 513 (1992). Further, "[i]n reviewing the factual findings made in an unemployment compensation 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." Charatan v. Bd. of Review, 200 N.J. Super. 74, 79 (App. Div. 1985). It is only when we find that the agency's action was arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable, that we can disturb the agency's ruling. Brady, supra, 152 N.J. at 211.
In this case, we are satisfied that the Board did not err in determining that Lane had failed to establish that her termination was imminent. One year previously, she had believed she would be terminated upon the hiring by Mashel of his first associate. However, termination did not occur. Two days before Lane quit her employment, she stated to Mashel that if he were dissatisfied with her work, he should terminate her. He did not do so. Further, when Lane became aware of the fact that Mashel was interviewing associate candidates, she did not seek to confirm her employment status with him. And finally, Lane offered no evidence that she was sufficiently privy to Mashel's finances to be able to opine authoritatively that he would have been unable to afford two associates and a paralegal. Indeed, it is not even clear from the record that Mashel did not intend to hire a second associate to replace the first.
We are also satisfied that the Board did not act arbitrarily, capriciously or unreasonably when it determined that Lane's decision to voluntarily leave her employment was not the result of good cause attributable to the work. N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a). As the Appeals Examiner found, Lane complained at length about Mashal's ill-tempered outbursts and conduct. However, she was unable to provide specific examples of what had taken place that would have in fact demonstrated the existence of a hostile work environment, and much of her testimony was premised upon her mere supposition that Mashel's outbursts were directed at her and her work. That Mashel was dissatisfied with Lane's writing ability and that he queried her legal analysis provides insufficient evidence of hostility. Gerber v. Bd. of Review, 313 N.J. Super. 37, 39-40 (App. Div. 1998) (holding that evidence of criticism of the claimant by her supervisor in front of other employees, causing her unnecessary humiliation, did not constitute good cause for voluntarily leaving the employment).
As we have stated: "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." Domenico v. Bd. of Review, 192 N.J. Super. 284, 287 (App. Div. 1983). Here, Lane claimed an "emotional breakdown," but she offered nothing that would suggest that her condition was serious in nature or that it required medical treatment.
As a consequence, we conclude that the Board's finding that Lane's working conditions were not so onerous as to constitute "good cause attributable to [the] work" is sufficiently supported by credible evidence in the record to require our deference. Self, supra, 91 N.J. at 459.
The decision of the Board of Review denying unemployment benefits is affirmed.