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Barnett v. Board of Review

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

July 5, 2013

NIA M. BARNETT, Appellant,


Submitted April 22, 2013.

On appeal from a the Board of Review, Department of labor.

Nia M. Barnett, appellant, pro se.

Jeffrey S. Chiesa, Attorney General, attorney for respondent (Lewis A. Scheindlin, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel; Christopher M. Kurek, Deputy Attorney General, on the brief).

Respondents Merit Mountainside Hospital and University of Medicine and Dentistry have not filed briefs.

Before Judges Graves and Ashrafi.


Claimant Nia M. Barnett appeals from a final decision of the Board of Review, Department of Labor and Workforce Development, denying her claim for unemployment compensation benefits. We affirm.

Barnett worked as a habilitation counselor at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) from March 2004 until she submitted a letter of resignation on March 11, 2010. She also worked part-time, on a per diem basis, as a hospital and emergency crisis counselor at Merit Mountainside Hospital. She left the part-time position in August 2010 to attend medical school in Aruba. A dialysis patient, Barnett experienced health issues in Aruba and could not continue in medical school there. She returned to New Jersey and applied for unemployment compensation benefits in October 2010.

On October 21, 2010, the deputy director denied her claim for benefits on the ground that she had left her positions voluntarily. She appealed that decision, claiming that she was forced to resign from the UMDNJ position because of a hostile work environment and that she left the Merit Mountainside position because there was not enough work. After a telephonic hearing, the Appeal Tribunal issued a decision on April 18, 2011, modifying but affirming the decision of the deputy director to deny the claim. The Appeal Tribunal cited three grounds for Barnett's disqualification: (1) pursuant to N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a), because Barnett had left both positions voluntarily; (2) pursuant to N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(i), because she became a fulltime student in Aruba in September 2010 and was therefore not available to work while a student; and (3) pursuant to N.J.S.A. 43:21-4(c)(1), because she was not able to work and was not seeking employment from October 3, 2010, until April 9, 2011.

Barnett's further administrative appeal was denied by the Board of Review on November 9, 2011, and she filed this appeal before us.

Our standard of review is limited. Pub. Serv. Elec. & Gas Co. v. N.J. Dep't of Envtl. Prot., 101 N.J. 95, 103 (1985). We will reverse a decision of an administrative agency only if it is contrary to law or arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable. Brady v. Bd. of Review, 152 N.J. 197, 210-11 (1997). "[I]f substantial credible evidence supports an agency's conclusion, a court may not substitute its own judgment for the agency's even though the court might have reached a different result." Greenwood v. State Police Training Ctr., 127 N.J. 500, 513 (1992); see also Mullarney v. Bd. of Review, 343 N.J.Super. 401, 406 (App. Div. 2001) (scope of appellate review in appeal from denial of unemployment benefits). We conclude the Board of Review's decision was not contrary to law or arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable.

N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a) disqualifies a claimant from receiving benefits if the claimant "left work voluntarily without good cause attributable to such work, " until after the claimant has become re-employed and worked for a minimum time period. Regulations of the Department of Labor and Workforce Development state that the claimant has the burden of proving she did not leave work voluntarily or she had good cause directly attributable to her employment for leaving the job. N.J.A.C. 12:17-9.1(b) and (c).

Barnett contends that a hostile work environment created by her supervisor at UMDNJ caused her to suffer severe psychological distress and related medical problems, and therefore, her resignation from UMDNJ should not be considered voluntary. Through her union representative, she filed grievances against the supervisor in 2009. However, there was never any finding that the supervisor had harassed Barnett, and, more important, the supervisor was no longer employed by UMDNJ after September 2009. Barnett resigned some six months later, in March 2010. Her resignation cannot be attributed to the hostile work environment she alleges was caused by the supervisor's unfair treatment of her and other employees.

Shortly before her resignation, Barnett was written up for failing to be available to attend an assignment on a day of a major snowfall. She apparently resigned rather than contest that disciplinary action and also to avoid a negative evaluation scheduled to be conducted in mid-March. She cites the unfairness of the employer's action as supporting her decision to resign. But an employer's disciplinary action or negative evaluation does not constitute the type of compelling reason or hostile work environment that has been found to justify an employee leaving a job without becoming disqualified for unemployment benefits.

In Domenico v. Board of Review, 192 N.J.Super. 284 (App. Div. 1983), we explained the kinds of "good cause" under N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a) that would excuse an employee's decision to leave employment. We said:

"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." Medwick v. Review Bd., 69 N.J.Super. 338, 345 (App. Div. 1961). The decision to leave employment must be compelled by real, substantial and reasonable circumstances not imaginary, trifling and whimsical ones.
[Id. at 288.]

Additionally, N.J.A.C. 12:17-9.1(b) defines "good cause" 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." While we would not characterize Barnett's concerns as imaginary, trifling, or whimsical, she had available the means to resolve her disputes with her supervisors. She had the ability to file a grievance and to challenge the employer's disciplinary action. She was not compelled to leave her job at UMDNJ in March 2010. Furthermore, negative job evaluations by themselves cannot be considered "good cause" for discontinuing employment and instead receiving unemployment compensation benefits.

With respect to Barnett's part-time job at Merit Mountainside, she left that position because she would be attending medical school in Aruba. She contends that she was not getting enough work to justify continuing the part-time work, but we stated in Zielenski v. Board of Review, 85 N.J.Super. 46, 53 (App. Div. 1964), that "good cause does not ordinarily exist when a person gives up partial employment for none at all." Also N.J.A.C. 12:17-9.1(e)(3) provides that leaving employment for the purpose of "school attendance" shall be considered voluntary separation from employment.

Although Barnett was not able to stay in Aruba because of complications involving her need for dialysis, she did not demonstrate that she was available to work and that she sought employment upon returning to the United States. The Board did not err in finding that she was disqualified from receiving unemployment compensation on the three grounds stated by the Appeal Tribunal for the period from September 2010 through April 2011.

We conclude from our review of the record that the Board's decision to deny benefits is adequately supported by substantial credible evidence, and is not arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable.


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