On appeal from the Board of Review, Department of Labor, Docket No. 214,764.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ashrafi, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 17, 2012
Before Judges Fuentes, Ashrafi and Hayden.
The opinion of the court was delivered by ASHRAFI, J.A.D.
This appeal concerns unemployment benefits awarded to Lester Beckles, a truck driver formerly employed by appellant Apogee Trucking, L.L.C., who was discharged because his poor driving record made him uninsurable. Apogee contends Beckles should be deemed to have voluntarily left his employment and therefore ineligible to collect unemployment compensation.
Although the employer's contention is fairly debatable under analogous case and regulatory law, we do not find sufficient ground on this record to reverse the final decision of the Department of Labor, Division of Unemployment and Disability Insurance, allowing Beckles to receive unemployment compensation. We affirm.
We will reverse an administrative agency's decision only if it is contrary to law or arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable. Brady v. Bd. of Rev., 152 N.J. 197, 210-11 (1997). We also accord substantial deference to an administrative agency's interpretation of a statute or regulation it is charged with enforcing. Bd. of Educ. of Neptune v. Neptune Twp. Educ. Ass'n, 144 N.J. 16, 31 (1996). Here, the agency determined that Beckles did not cause his own unemployment and was not disqualified by statute from receiving benefits.
Apogee hired Beckles in April 2008 to drive a truck for purposes of picking up and delivering items donated for distribution to charitable organizations. At the time Beckles was hired, his driving record included two accidents, five citations, and six resulting "points." Apogee knew about the driving record but decided to employ Beckles.
Beckles worked for Apogee from April 23 through November 17, 2008. During that period, he was involved in three minor motor vehicle accidents, only one of which was his fault.*fn1 In addition, in June 2008, his driver's license was suspended because he did not make a timely payment of a surcharge imposed for past traffic violations, but his license was reinstated four days later when he paid the surcharge. Apogee did not terminate Beckles because of any of the driving incidents that occurred in the months after he began working. Rather, Apogee terminated him because it learned that he would no longer be covered by the liability insurance policy provided for Apogee's drivers.
On November 17, 2008, Apogee received a letter from Ryder Transportation Services, the company that provided the trucks used in Apogee's operations and also the insurance coverage for the truck drivers. Ryder's letter stated it would not insure Beckles and he could not drive its trucks because of his driving record. The letter referred to three violations and two accidents in the previous thirty-six months. Apogee terminated Beckles the same day because it could not allow an uninsured driver to drive its trucks.
Beckles applied for unemployment benefits. Administrative proceedings before the Department of Labor resulted in two reversals of internal decisions about Beckles's eligibility for full benefits. Ultimately, on August 25, 2010, the Department's Board of Review affirmed the decision of an Appeal Tribunal that Beckles had not been terminated for misconduct and was therefore eligible to receive unemployment benefits.
On appeal, Apogee has abandoned its prior argument that Beckles's poor driving was "misconduct" under N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(b) that justified his termination and made him ineligible for full benefits. Apogee's general manager testified at two telephonic hearings that the employer knew Beckles had a problematic driving record before hiring him and that the several incidents during his period of employment were not the reason for his termination. The Appeal Tribunal concluded ...