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Farnworth v. Board of Review

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

June 5, 2013

BARBARA A. FARNWORTH, Appellant,
v.
BOARD OF REVIEW and TYCO INTERNATIONAL MANAGEMENT CO., Respondents.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted May 7, 2013

On appeal from the Board of Review, Department of Labor, Docket No. 271, 655.

Michals & Michals, LLC, attorneys for appellant (Spiros T. Michals, on the briefs).

Jeffrey S. Chiesa, Attorney General, attorney for respondent Board of Review, New Jersey Department of Labor, Division of Unemployment (Lewis A. Scheindlin, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel; Christopher M. Kurek, Deputy Attorney General, on the brief).

Before Judges Fisher and Waugh.

PER CURIAM

Appellant Barbara A. Farnworth appeals the final administrative decision of the Board of Review (Board) in the Division of Unemployment and Disability Insurance (Division), Department of Labor, which denied her application for unemployment benefits. We affirm.

I.

We discern the following facts and procedural history from the record on appeal. Farnworth was employed by respondent Tyco International Management Company (Tyco) as a cash manager from March 2003 until December 7, 2009, when she terminated her employment. According to Farnworth, she left because she could no longer tolerate the conduct of her new supervisor, Mike Giakoumotis. She described his conduct as obnoxious, demeaning, and discriminatory, resulting in physical symptoms such as headaches, upset stomach, and chest pains resulting from stress.[1]

Farnworth filed a claim for unemployment benefits on December 10, 2009. The Division's Deputy Director determined that Farnworth was not entitled to benefits because she left work voluntarily without good cause attributable to the work. Farnworth appealed to the Division's Appeal Tribunal, which held a telephone hearing on April 13, 2010.

The Appeal Tribunal dismissed the appeal, finding that it was untimely and that good cause had not been shown for the late filing. Farnworth appealed the dismissal to the Board, which remanded the matter to the Appeal Tribunal for rehearing on all issues. Following a second telephone hearing on November 2, 2010, the Appeal Tribunal again dismissed the appeal, citing the same reasons and adding that, had the appeal been timely, the Tribunal would have affirmed the decision of the Deputy Director because Farnworth had not exhausted her internal remedies at Tyco to resolve her problems with Giakoumotis.

Farnworth again appealed to the Board, which issued its decision on May 27, 2011. The Board found that the appeal from the Deputy Director to the Appeal Tribunal was late, but that there was good cause for the late filing. However, on the merits, the Board agreed with the Appeal Tribunal that Farnworth was not entitled to benefits under N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a) because she did not demonstrate good cause attributed to the work for terminating her employment at Tyco. This appeal followed.

II.

On appeal, Farnworth argues that the Board's determination that she left her employment with Tyco without good cause attributable to the work was erroneous because her treatment by Giakoumotis provided sufficient good cause.

Our scope of review of an administrative agency action is limited and highly deferential. It is restricted to the following inquiries:

(1) whether the agency's decision offends the State or Federal Constitution;
(2) whether the agency's action violates express or implied legislative policies;
(3)whether the record contains substantial evidence to support the findings on which the agency based its action; and
(4) whether in applying the legislative policies to the facts, the agency clearly erred in reaching a conclusion that could not reasonably have been made on a showing of the relevant factors.
[Brady v. Bd. of Review, 152 N.J. 197, 211 (1997) (quoting George Harms Constr. Co. v. N.J. Tpk. Auth., 137 N.J. 8, 27 (1994)).]

So long as the Board's decision is supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record and was neither "arbitrary, capricious, [nor] unreasonable, " it will be affirmed. Id. at 210 (citing In re Warren, 117 N.J. 295, 296 (1989)).

We also review factual findings made by an administrative agency deferentially. On appeal, "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." Ibid. (quoting Charatan v. Bd. of Review, 200 N.J.Super. 74, 79 (App. Div. 1985)) (internal quotation marks omitted). So long as the "factual findings are supported by 'sufficient credible evidence, courts are obliged to accept them.'" Ibid. (quoting Self v. Bd. of Review, 91 N.J. 453, 459 (1982)).

N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a) provides that an individual who leaves work "voluntarily without good cause attributable to such work" will be disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits. While the statute does not define "good cause, " it has been construed to require more than mere dissatisfaction with working conditions.

In scrutinizing an employee's reason for leaving, the test is one of ordinary common sense and prudence. 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. The decision to leave employment must be compelled by real, substantial and reasonable circumstances not imaginary, trifling and whimsical ones. . . . [I]t is the employee's responsibility to do what is necessary and reasonable in order to remain employed.
[Domenico v. Bd. of Review, 192 N.J.Super. 284, 288 (App. Div. 1983) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).]

Additionally, "good cause attributable to such work" has been defined by regulation as "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). Thus, an employee who quits a job without a sufficient work-related reason is disqualified from benefits under N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a).

In essence, in determining whether the employee voluntarily left work for work-related good cause, the employee must show that he or she did all that was "necessary and reasonable" to stay employed. Heulitt v. Bd. of Review, 300 N.J.Super. 407, 414 (App. Div. 1997). Clearly, such a test is fact sensitive. See Utley v. Bd. of Review, 194 N.J. 534, 550 (2008).

For the purposes of this appeal, we will assume that the conduct attributed to Giakoumotis occurred and that it would have been good cause under N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a) for Farnworth to leave her employment at Tyco had it continued unabated after reasonable efforts on her part to have Tyco's management put a stop to it. Consequently, the question is whether Farnworth did all that was "necessary and reasonable in order to remain employed." Heulitt, supra, 300 N.J.Super. at 414.

In upholding the Appeal Tribunal's determination that Farnworth did not take sufficient internal steps before quitting her job at Tyco, the Board relied on her testimony at the November 2, 2010 hearing that she chose not to go to Tyco's Human Resources Department (HR) to complain about Giakoumotis's conduct because she did not want to cause his termination. It is implicit in her testimony that she believed that there was a significant possibility that a complaint to HR would result in his termination. She chose to leave her position herself rather than to take action that she believed could result in Giakoumotis having to leave.

Our standard of review does not allow us to substitute our judgment for that of an administrative agency. If we are "satisfied after [our] review that the evidence and the inferences to be drawn therefrom support the agency head's decision, then [we] must affirm even if [we] feel[] that [we] would have reached a different result [ourselves]." Clowes v. Terminix Int'l, Inc., 109 N.J. 575, 588 (1988). It is only when our review of the record leads us to conclude that the agency's finding is clearly erroneous that the decision is not entitled to judicial deference. L.M. v. Div. of Med. Assistance & Health Servs., 140 N.J. 480, 489-90 (1995).

Because our review of the record convinces us that there is sufficient support in the record for the Board's decision and that it is not clearly erroneous, we must affirm.

Affirmed.


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