Articles Posted in Vermont Supreme Court

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Jason Lillie appeals the Employment Security Board’s denial of his claim for unemployment benefits. In July 2014, Lillie was an employee of Amerigas Propane, Inc. and suffered an injury while working. He reported the injury to his employer, which in turn reported it to its worker’s compensation insurer. He sought medical attention for his injury shortly after being hurt but was able to continue working for several weeks, most of it on modified or light duty. In October, Amerigas fired Lillie for an alleged safety violation. A few days later, Lillie’s doctor indicated he was medically unable to work. Lillie expressed concern that he was ineligible for unemployment benefits because he was not able to work but was told he must apply in order to receive economic benefits. Lillie then sought workers’ compensation temporary disability benefits, which were initially denied by the insurer. Without any income or compensation disability benefits for several weeks, Lillie sought economic assistance from the Vermont Economic Services Division of the Department for Children and Families. Lillie was told by Economic Services that in order to be eligible for economic assistance he would have to file for unemployment benefits, even if he felt he would not qualify for them. With his workers’ compensation claim still in dispute, and based upon the information he had received from Economic Services, Lillie filed a claim for unemployment benefits. The Unemployment Division found him to be monetarily eligible for unemployment benefits when he sought them in December 2014. While he had the necessary base period wages to make him monetarily eligible for benefits, Lillie was not able to work and available for work, as required by 21 V.S.A. 1343(a)(3), because he was medically unable to work. He was, therefore, denied unemployment compensation. "At a minimum, coordination of the important information between the Unemployment Division and Economic Services concerning monetary eligibility, the establishment of a benefit year, and the use of wages and the use of wages prior to disability in connection therewith in the case of a worker injured on the job may have avoided this quagmire. Following the advice given by Economic Services, which we do not doubt was provided in good faith to Lillie, resulted in the unintended consequence of his loss of unemployment benefits once he regained his ability to work in 2017." The Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the denial of unemployment benefits; the Unemployment Division applied the law properly, and the Court was "not at liberty to rewrite the applicable statutes to obtain a different outcome." View "Lillie v. Department of Labor" on Justia Law

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This case focused on whether the Department for Children and Families (DCF) could deny an applicant temporary housing assistance under General Assistance (GA) Rule 2652.3 for having left her housing in response to a notice of termination without cause from her landlord. DCF argued that applicant Dezarae Durkee caused her own loss of housing and therefore was ineligible for assistance. The Human Services Board upheld this determination. Applicant argued that leaving in response to a notice of termination without cause does not constitute causing her own lack of housing and sought a declaration of such damages. The Vermont Supreme Court granted the declaratory judgment but concluded damages were not appropriate relief. View "In re Appeal of Dezarae Durkee" on Justia Law

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Claimant Katherine St. Martin appealed the Employment Security Board's determination that she voluntarily left her job without good cause, disqualifying her from receiving unemployment benefits. She argued on appeal that her decision to quit her job was with good cause because she reasonably believed she would not receive a paycheck for her work. Claimant worked for almost two years for her employer as an assistant financial supervisor, which required her to prepare payroll information weekly. At some point, her employer began to have financial difficulties, and the payroll submission day was moved back to later in the week. The president of Claimant’s employer told claimant not to submit payroll because there were inadequate funds to cover the checks. The president then attempted to borrow money to meet the payroll, which ultimately proved "fruitless." The chief of operations persuaded the president to close the business and pay the employees. Claimant submitted the payroll after being given permission to do so by the president. She then printed the checks, and distributed them to the employees. After the president told claimant that the checks would bounce due to lack of funds, Claimant quit. Upon review, the Supreme Court held that Claimant should not have been penalized for leaving her job when she was told not to expect a paycheck. The president's statement amounted to "good cause." View "St. Martin v. Dept. of Labor" on Justia Law

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Respondent Alan Cote appealed a family court's garnishment order that directed the Social Security Administration to withhold his Social Security benefits to offset alimony arrearages. On appeal, Respondent contended that the garnishment order violated a provision of the Federal Consumer Credit Protection Act which imposes a cap on the percentage of aggregate disposable earnings that any court, state or federal, may garnish. While the trial court garnished only Respondent's Social Security disability benefits and not his veterans' disability benefits, the court did include the latter in its calculation of aggregate disposable earnings.  This broad calculation of disposable earning increased the percentage of Respondent's Social Security payments subject to garnishment.  Respondent contended that as defined and excluded from such a calculation by federal law, his particular veterans' disability benefits were not to be counted as earnings because they were not paid for a service related disability and are not received in lieu of retirement payments to which he would otherwise be entitled as earnings.  Upon review of the lower court's record and calculations, the Supreme Court agreed, reversed the lower court's order and remanded the case for recalculation of the garnishment.

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Claimant Katrina Blue appealed an Employment Security Board decision that denied her claim for unemployment compensation benefits.  Claimant contended the Board erred in: (1) finding that she was disqualified from receiving benefits because she left her employment voluntarily; and (2) assigning her the burden of proof.  Claimant worked for about four years for Hickok & Boardman Realty.  In the early summer of 2010, claimant left her employment to participate in a three-month cross-country bicycle ride for multiple sclerosis. Claimant acknowledged that she did not submit a written request for leave, as required in the company's personnel policy, which stated that employees who apply for unpaid personal leave, "must apply in writing" and that, "reinstatement is not guaranteed" but rather, "at the Company's sole discretion."  While conceding that her leave arrangement "was not typical," Claimant maintained that her supervisor had agreed, "that an exception would be made in this instance." In its ruling, the ALJ's findings indicated that Claimant "requested a three-month leave of absence" but do not state whether the request was granted or, if so, on what terms.   Its key conclusion, however, was that, "[w]hile the claimant maintain[ed] that she was fired when the employer would not allow her to come back from a personal leave of absence, it was the claimant who initiated the separation from employment by requesting the leave of absence . . . thus making this a voluntary separation from employment."  Since there was no claim that the separation was for "good cause attributable" to the employer, the ALJ concluded that claimant was disqualified from receiving benefits. In a divided ruling, the Employment Security Board adopted the ALJ's findings and conclusions and sustained its decision.  The dissenting member of the Board would have found that claimant's "departure for her cross-country ride was . . . not a voluntary abandonment of her employment, but a temporary unpaid leave of absence," that claimant was let go upon her return in late August, and therefore that she was entitled to unemployment compensation benefits from that time forward.  This appeal followed. Upon review of the record, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case to the Department of Labor's ALJ: "[m]indful that our unemployment compensation scheme must be broadly construed so that no claimant is "excluded unless the law clearly intends" it … we direct the ALJ on remand to enter additional findings and conclusions on the material issues presented, and to award unemployment compensation benefits to claimant in the event it is determined that she  did not leave her employment voluntarily."

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Employer Ethan Allen, Inc. appealed the Commissioner of the Department of Labor's decision that Claimant Robin Houle's right shoulder condition was compensable under the Workers' Compensation Act.  Claimant experienced pain and weakness in her left shoulder and arm, and her job duties as a furniture refinisher were modified to account for her medical restrictions.  Claimant was assigned to an inventory control/stockroom clerk position where she engaged in a variety of duties.  Interspersed among these duties, claimant also wrapped finished shelves to prepare them for shipping. Claimant was initially treated for the increased symptoms in her shoulder and neck by her primary care provider.  The primary care provider referred her to an orthopedist for further evaluation.  The orthopedist suspected that her left shoulder complaints were most likely due to her repetitive work for Ethan Allen.  He attributed claimant's right shoulder pain to normal wear and tear to be expected of someone claimant's age.  Claimant was dissatisfied with this evaluation and was then referred to an orthopedic surgeon for further evaluation and treatment. In view of the competing expert medical opinions, the Commission relied on a traditional five-part test to evaluate their persuasiveness. Ethan Allen raised numerous arguments on appeal to the Supreme Court. Principal among them, Ethan Allen challenged the Commissioner's use of the five-part test to evaluate competing medical opinions, both as applied in this case and in general.  According to the Employer, the use of this test improperly shifts the burden of proof from claimant to employer, unfairly places employers at a disadvantage, and erroneously employs a "winner take all" approach to evaluating a claimant's expert testimony. Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that Ethan Allen failed to show that the Commissioner's findings were clearly erroneous or that her conclusions were unsupported by the findings. The Court affirmed the Commissioner's decision in this case.

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Plaintiff Pamela Allen-Pentkowski appealed the Vermont Employment Security Board's (Board) determination that she was discharged from work for actions constituting misconduct, a decision which temporarily disqualified her from collecting unemployment compensation benefits.  Prior to her discharge, Plaintiff had worked for over five years at Liebert Engineering, Inc. as a computer assisted design operator. Over the course of her work for Liebert, a dispute arose when Plaintiff's work schedule changed. She claims she told her supervisor that she could make a requested change in her work hours after she had her baby, but until then, could not work an extra hour beyond 4:00 p.m. on days requested by her supervisor. In an e-mail to the company's president, Plaintiff explained she could not work the extra hour, that her supervisor would not listen to her, and that she felt harassed by his repeated insistence. Hearing an exchange between Plaintiff and the supervisor, the president came from his office and told Plaintiff that "can't is equal to refusal, refusal is reason for termination," at which point, he discharged Plaintiff. Plaintiff filed for unemployment compensation benefits but the claims adjudicator determined the nature of plaintiff's discharge from her employer was misconduct connected with her work. On appeal, plaintiff argued that her inability to work the hours requested by her employer was not misconduct within the meaning of the statute and should not disqualify her from unemployment compensation benefits.  Upon review, the Supreme Court held the employer failed to carry its burden of proof and reversed the Board's decision.