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Monday, May 31, 2021

NJ Employment Discrimination Attorney, Courts Disagree on Employees’ Rights

As experienced attorneys know, there are no guaranteed wins in court, no guaranteed slam dunks even in what would appear to be cases with simple issues. Courts disagree among one another and Justices in the same Court frequently disagree among themselves when rendering a decision. A recent case involving an unemployment appeal is illustrative. In this matter, the NJ Supreme Court recently considered whether pretrial detention premised on charges that are later dismissed should be considered a voluntary separation from work that automatically disqualifies an applicant from unemployment benefits under the Unemployment Compensation Law.

The claimant Haley was denied unemployment benefits and he appealed the denial of benefits. The matter made its way to the level of the Appellate Division, which relied on the reasoning in an earlier similar case involving an arrest where the charges were dropped, Fennell v. Board of Review, 297 N.J. Super. 319 (App. Div. 1997). Fennell had been arrested, detained, and terminated from employment before the charges against him were dropped. Fennell had been confined for nine months before release, and the Appellate Court upheld his denial of unemployment benefits. Relying on Fennell, the Appellate Court upheld the denial of benefits to Haley.

In Haley, the Supreme Court disagreed with the Appellate Court as to Haley, but it refused to overturn the earlier similar case, Fennell. One of the Supreme Court Justices in Haley filed a  strong dissenting opinion that was stronger as to Haley’s rights and stated that the earlier case, Fennell, should have been overturned as well.

The underlying facts in Haley are as follows:

The claimant, Haley, had been employed as a maintenance worker until he was arrested, and charged with numerous criminal offenses. His request for pretrial release was not granted. His mother contacted his employer because he wanted to keep his job, but the position was filled in December of 2017. He was released from custody in  February of 2018, after a grand jury did not find sufficient evidence to sustain the return of an indictment. The prosecutor dismissed all the criminal warrants against him.

Haley applied for unemployment compensation shortly thereafter. The Deputy Director denied the claim. The Appeal Tribunal also denied his claim. The Appeal Tribunal's position was that he was disqualified for unemployment benefits because he was "separated due to his absence from work, which was a direct result from his incarceration," Claimant was "considered to have left the job voluntarily in accordance with N.J.A.C. 12:17-9.1."

The Haley case finally made its way to the New Jersey Supreme Court. The claimant Haley maintained it was an error to treat pretrial incarceration, where all charges were dismissed, as a "voluntary" separation from employment under N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a). His attorneys asserted this is inconsistent with the remedial purpose of unemployment laws, is unreasonable, wrongly disregards the "vital role" of the grand jury.

The "threshold question" should be whether the departure from work was voluntary, not whether it was work-related. Haley did not engage in any voluntary act resulting in his absence from work and he actively tried to keep his job.

The Haley Supreme Court reasoned in its decision that the fact-sensitive analysis here would have to go beyond whether Haley was falsely imprisoned or involved in a case of mistaken identity, to consider that authorities arrested Haley, the court ordered him to be detained pretrial, the grand jury declined to indict, and the charges against him were dismissed.

The majority opinion distinguished Haley from the claimant in Fennell, who had been confined for nine months before release. Haley had been detained for about two months when he was released from detention.

The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Appellate Division and remanded the matter back to Department of Labor for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

NJ Supreme Court Justice Barry T. Albin did not agree with the majority opinion and filed a strong dissenting opinion. Justice Albin would have gone further than just reversing and sending Haley back to the Department of Labor.  He would have granted him the benefits without requiring him to go back to the Department of Labor, which remand he believed was punishing him twice for benefits he was already entitled to receive. He also would have reversed the earlier Fennell decision and awarded Fennell benefits.

In his strong dissenting opinion, Justice Albin stated:

“In passing the Unemployment Compensation Law (UCL), N.J.S.A. 43:21-1 to -71, did the Legislature intend that one arm of government can cause the loss of a person’s job by detaining him on charges later dismissed by a grand jury, and that another arm of government can find that the exonerated worker “voluntarily” left his employment without good cause, thus disabling him from receiving unemployment benefits? The answer to that question clearly should be no. In my view, the answer to that question does not require, as the majority holds, a fact-sensitive analysis and should not depend on the length of the vindicated worker’s pretrial detention.

 The remedial purpose of the UCL is “to provide some income for the worker earning nothing, because he is out of work through no fault or act of his own.” ......Whether a worker loses his job -- through no fault of his own -- because his pretrial detention is two months, nine months, or twenty months should not change the equation.

I believe that this Court’s decision in DeLorenzo v. Board of Review.......  should light our way. In that case, as noted by the majority, we decided that an employee who became ill for reasons unrelated to work was nonetheless entitled to unemployment benefits.” In DeLorenzo, we held that “when an employee becomes ill and does those things reasonably calculated to protect the employment[, then] notwithstanding that she is not reinstated, there is no voluntary leaving of work." ..... We did not suggest in DeLorenzo that the length of the worker’s illness would enter into the calculus of whether she left work voluntarily or was entitled to unemployment benefits. A pretrial detainee does not leave his employment voluntarily, and when he makes efforts to preserve his job and is cleared of the criminal charges, he should be treated no differently than the ill employee in DeLorenzo.

I see no need for a remand in this matter. I would make clear that all exonerated employees who lose their jobs because of their pretrial detention are entitled to unemployment benefits under the UCL. That holding would advance the socially remedial purposes of the UCL rather than leave the employees doubly victimized -- first by a wrongful detention that causes their unemployment and then by a government indifferent to their financial distress.

I therefore respectfully dissent....

Denying unemployment benefits to a person who loses his job because of a wrongful detention cannot be reconciled with the humane objectives of the UCL or our decision in DeLorenzo. Because this case is ultimately about the meaning of the UCL, the Legislature -- by its silence or actions -- will have the final word on whether today’s decision is consistent with the law it enacted.

I would reverse the judgment of the Appellate Division and not, as the majority directs, remand for further proceedings. Haley has made his case for his entitlement to unemployment benefits.

I therefore respectfully dissent.”

Be advised that every unemployment compensation case has many potential problems which could lead to disqualification for benefits and this article is not intended in any manner to be giving legal advice in any particular case.  If you are going to file for unemployment, you should consult with an attorney prior to filing.

If you are unhappy in your job and thinking about resigning, you should contact an experienced employment law attorney before you do so. If you think your employer is forcing you out or discriminating against you, or illegally retaliating against you, you should call me call me now. I am an aggressive and compassionate employment law attorney who is successful in bringing discrimination, whistleblower, and illegal retaliation lawsuits and recovering money for workers who were subjected to their employer’s illegal acts. I have successfully represented employees of public entities and private employers, who were harassed, retaliated against, terminated or did not have their contract for employment renewed because of their employer's illegal bias and was successful in obtaining monetary compensation for them.

If you are being subjected to such unlawful workplace discrimination, contact Hope A. Lang, Attorney at Law today for a free consultation.

New Jersey employment attorney, Hope A. Lang, Attorney at Law serves clients throughout the state, including Bergen, Middlesex, Essex, Hudson, Monmouth, Ocean, Union, Camden, Passaic, and Morris Counties with locations in Southern, Central, Western and Northern NJ to meet with clients.



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