May 28, 2013
SEAN J. CREAN, Appellant,
BOARD OF REVIEW, DEPARTMENT OF LABOR AND WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT, AND WESTINGHOUSE LIGHTING CORPORATION, Respondents.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted May 14, 2013
On appeal from the Board of Review, Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Docket No. 281, 530.
Sean J. Crean, appellant pro se.
Jeffrey S. Chiesa, Attorney General, attorney for respondent Board of Review (Lewis A. Scheindlin, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel; Christopher M. Kurek, Deputy Attorney General, on the brief).
Respondent Westinghouse Lighting Corporation has not filed a brief.
Before Judges Reisner and Hayden.
Sean J. Crean appeals from an August 16, 2011 final decision of the Board of Review, determining that he was ineligible to receive Extended Unemployment Compensation benefits from the State of New Jersey and holding him liable to refund $15, 184 in benefits that he received for the weeks ending October 3, 2009 through March 27, 2010. We reverse and remand this matter to the Board for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
Crean asserts that he was caught in a "Catch-22" situation, created by the unemployment benefit agencies of two different states. Crean worked for Westinghouse Lighting Corporation in New Jersey for a number of years before he moved to Georgia. According to Crean, even after he moved out of New Jersey, Westinghouse continued to report his wages as having been earned in New Jersey. As a result, deductions from his pay continued to be transmitted to the New Jersey Unemployment Fund.
Crean was laid off while he was living in Georgia. He applied to the Georgia Department of Labor (Georgia agency) for unemployment benefits, but the Georgia agency denied his claim and told him to apply for benefits in New Jersey. Crean contacted the New Jersey Department of Labor (New Jersey agency) and was likewise told to apply in New Jersey. Accordingly, on March 29, 2009, Crean applied for benefits from the New Jersey agency, which granted his claim and paid him benefits. When those benefits ran out, the New Jersey agency sent Crean a notice dated October 7, 2009, advising him that he was eligible to apply for Extended Unemployment Compensation benefits. Accordingly, Crean applied for and received benefits from the New Jersey agency, from October 3, 2009 through March 27, 2010.
However, on April 22, 2010, the New Jersey agency sent Crean a Demand for Refund of the $15, 184 in benefits that he had already received. Shortly thereafter, Crean received two contradictory notices from the Georgia agency. The first notice, dated April 28, 2010, once again denied his benefit claim, on the basis that he had insufficient earnings attributable to the State of Georgia. The second notice, dated April 30, 2010, showed a revised statement of his alleged Georgia earnings, and granted his benefit claim retroactive to September 27, 2009. However, according to Crean, he did not apply for those benefits, because he was afraid that Georgia, like New Jersey, would then seek to recoup them. There is no evidence in this record that Crean ever actually received any unemployment benefits from the State of Georgia.
The record does not reflect what communication took place between the Georgia and New Jersey agencies, or why they did not simply arrange for Georgia to reimburse New Jersey for Crean's benefits. Instead, holding Crean to a standard of twenty-twenty hindsight, the New Jersey agency demanded that he repay more than $15, 000 in benefits, apparently based on the information contained in the April 30 notice from the Georgia agency.
Crean filed an administrative appeal stating that he filed his New Jersey claim in reliance on information provided by employees of the Georgia and New Jersey agencies. His appeal plainly implicated the New Jersey agency's authority to waive "recovery of an overpayment of benefits." N.J.A.C. 12:17-14.2 (authorizing the Director of the Division of Unemployment and Temporary Disability Insurance to waive repayment of benefits where the claimant was not at fault and recoupment "would be patently contrary to the principles of equity"); see N.J.S.A. 43:21-16(d)(1) (authorizing the Director to adopt waiver regulations). Crean's April 29, 2010 appeal letter stated in relevant part:
Upon my employment being terminated by Westinghouse Lighting Corporation, I filed a claim with the State of Georgia for UI benefits. The Georgia office notified me that my former employer had only weeks prior changed the withholdings on my pay to reflect my [new residency] and therefore, my benefits were in New Jersey. Prior to my move to Georgia, I was a resident of New Jersey and paid into New Jersey UI withholdings since 1993 and being consistently employed, never filed a claim for unemployment. I was given contact information at that time by the Georgia office and spoke to a woman at the N.J. Dept. of Labor. After providing her with all requested information she said, "Don't worry your money is here, and we will set up a claim and get you taken care of."
. . . I feel that I have done everything that I am supposed to as a claimant. If there is any fault it most likely resides in the fact that my former employer failed to change the withholding information when they should have. Please accept this appeal and provide me with some kind of contact who can assist me in getting this issue resolved. The financial implications of both not receiving benefits in the last 30 days and being told that I owe $15, 184 to the State of New Jersey are contributing a great deal of stress and personal hardship into what is already been one of the toughest periods of my life.
In his testimony before the appeals examiner on June 9, 2010, Crean presented the same information contained in his appeal letter, but in more detail. However, in her initial decision dated June 11, 2010, the appeals examiner ignored the waiver-of-repayment issue and made no relevant factual findings. The Board remanded the case to the appeals examiner on December 2, 2010, for "a new decision . . . explaining the reason for the claimant's non-fraud refund demand" and directing that the examiner issue "a new decision on all issues."
Unfortunately, on remand, the examiner's February 28, 2011 decision still ignored the waiver issue and made no findings of fact on Crean's claims that he was misled by the Georgia and New Jersey agencies and should not have to repay the $15, 000. Although Crean had received a series of contradictory decisions from both the Georgia and New Jersey agencies concerning his eligibility, the examiner's decision also failed to address the issue of which state should have paid the benefits and why. Absent such a finding, the agency could not decide whether Crean had received an "overpayment" of benefits from New Jersey. In a terse final decision, stating only that "we agree with the decision" of the appeals examiner, the Board likewise failed to address either issue.
Our decision of this appeal is governed by several well-established legal principles. First, although we ordinarily defer to an agency's decision if it is supported by substantial credible evidence and is consistent with applicable law, In re Taylor, 158 N.J. 644, 656 (1999), we cannot engage in meaningful appellate review of a decision that is devoid of pertinent factual and legal findings. See Bailey v. Bd. of Review, 339 N.J.Super. 29, 32-33 (App. Div. 2001). Second, a State agency has an obligation to "turn square corners" in dealing with members of the public who are subject to its regulations. See W.V. Pangborne & Co. v. N.J. Dep't of Transp., 116 N.J. 543, 561-62 (1989).
In reviewing the record, which thus far consists of Crean's unrebutted evidence, we are left with the distinct impression that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred. However, because the agency failed to make appropriate factual and legal findings, the record is inadequate for us to make a definitive ruling on this appeal. Absent appropriate findings of fact and conclusions of law, the agency's decision was arbitrary. Accordingly, we reverse the final decision and remand this case to the agency for further proceedings.
If the Board disputes Crean's factual assertions, Crean shall receive a new hearing, before a different appeals examiner. If the Board accepts Crean's factual assertions, a new hearing is not necessary. Based on the facts as the Board finds them to be, the Board shall reconsider whether Crean was entitled to collect New Jersey unemployment benefits (either regular benefits or extended benefits) as a matter of law. If the Board determines that Crean was not entitled to collect New Jersey benefits, the Board shall decide whether to waive repayment of the benefits he already received, pursuant to N.J.A.C. 12:17-14.2.
Reversed and remanded. We do not retain jurisdiction.