Monday, October 19, 2009

UC - referee duty to unrepresented claimant - sexual harassment

Murray v. UCBR - Cmwlth. Court - October 19, 2009

This case was not reported, but it has some useful things in it, nonetheless.

Referee duty to unrepresented claimant -
When a party is unaccompanied by counsel at a hearing before the referee, the referee is charged with a heightened responsibility of supervising the presentation of evidence. Drs. Katsur & Associates v. UCBR, 509 A.2d 926 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1986). The referee must act reasonably in assisting an unrepresented party’s development of necessary facts but need not advise a party on evidentiary questions or specific points of law. Bennett. The referee must advise a claimant of his right to be represented by counsel, to offer witnesses and to cross-examine adverse witnesses. Catanese v. UCBR, 452 A.2d 929 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1982). However, it is true that a referee need not advise a claimant with respect to the conduct of the hearing at every stage. Rohrbach v. UCBR, 450 A.2d 323 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1982). Any failure to develop an adequate record must be shown to be prejudicial to the claimant; mere harmless error will not support a reversal. Snow v. UCBR, 433 A.2d 922 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1981).
In Bennett v. UCBR, 445 A.2d 258 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1982), the claimant alleged that she was not afforded a full and fair hearing as the referee failed to assist her in developing relevant testimony, inter alia, “alleged sexual harassment by patrons of which her employer was aware but did not remedy.” This Court concluded that the “very sparse record” and the “two-page hearing transcript . . . of which only less than half of a page is germane to" the issues "revealed that the referee did not ask sufficient questions to aid the claimant in establishing a necessitous and compelling cause for leaving her job. Bennett, 445 A.2d at 459. We also noted, that the referee did not inform claimant of her right to counsel or to cross-examine witnesses, and, thus, the hearing was less than “full and fair.” Thus, we concluded that the referee should have more “thoroughly and reasonably extracted testimony” on these issues. Id.
Here, however, although claimant correctly recited the law, her allegation that the referee failed to properly help her develop the record and establish facts that were supportive of her claim is unsupported by evidence of record. Moroever, the referee told claimant of her right to counsel and other rights, explained the hearing procedures, asked questions of her and attempted to elicit relevant testimony.

Sexual harassment
Sexual harassment can be a necessitous and compelling reason for separating from employment, provided the employee has taken reasonable and prudent steps to alleviate the problem. Weissman v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 502 A.2d 782 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1986). Thus, a claimant must establish that she took “common sense action” such that the employer was aware of the nature of the objection. Colduvell v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 408 A.2d 1207 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1979). See Homan v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 527 A.2d 1109 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1987) and Collier Stone Company v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 876 A.2d 481 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2005); Comitalo v. UCBR, 737 A.2d 342 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1999).

UC - voluntary quit - length of commute

Blazowich v. UCBR - Cmwlth. Court - October 19, 2009 - unreported memorandum opinion

Transportation inconveniences constitute a necessitous and compelling reason for voluntary termination “only where they are ‘so serious and unreasonable as to present a virtually insurmountable problem and the claimant must demonstrate that he or she took reasonable steps to remedy or overcome the transportation problems prior to severing the employment relationship.’” Musguire v. UCBR, 415 A.2d 708, 709 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1980) (quoting Lee v. UCBR, 401 A.2d 12, 13 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1979).

A fifty-mile one-way commute, without more, does not constitute a necessitous and compelling reason to quit. Kieley v. UCBR, 471 A.2d 1345 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1984). Furthermore, a claimant who has not tried a sixty-mile commute, even for a single day, before severing the employment relationship, has not taken reasonable steps to overcome transportation problems. Musguire. Here, Claimant would have had to travel a distance of only twenty-five miles, and Claimant did not attempt commuting to the new assignment, not even once, before refusing Employer’s offer. Thus, Claimant has failed to establish a necessitous and compelling reason for terminating employment.

UC - vol. quit - safety of claimant v. safety of others

Green Tree School v. UCBR - Cmwlth. Court - October 19, 2009 (2-1)

The court reversed the UCBR and held that Claimant’s stated safety concerns and Employer’s refusal to allow her to participate in a staffing decision gave her necessitous and compelling reasons to resign. Concluding that they did not, we reverse the Board.

Employer is a private school for children with autism and emotional disturbances, where Claimant worked for seven years as the Director of Education. She quit her job when another job position, behavior health coordinator -- which was occupied by her life partner -- was eliminated, without any consultation with the claimant.

Claimant submitted a resignation letter to the school’s board of directors that its “decision to cut the position of Behavior Coordinator for the coming year … has resulted in my resignation.” The board accepted the resignation.

The court agreed with the Employer contention that claimant’s concerns regarding the “physical and emotional safety” of the persons at the school was speculative and that claimant did not take reasonable steps to preserve her employment.

The court rejected claimant's argument that the elimination of the position made the school unsafe for the children, citing only cases about a claimant's own personal safety. "There is simply a disconnect between the harm posited by claimant and her personal safety....The test is not whether a claimant’s belief is a genuine one. Rather, the test is whether the claimant has demonstrated that the workplace environment has placed “real,” i.e., actual and extreme, pressure on the claimant....Claimant’s self-serving testimony did not demonstrate that she was unsafe or that the workplace was unsafe with the kind of objective evidence presented" in other cases.

The exclusion of the claimant from the staffing decision did not give her good cause to quit either. "Employees do not enjoy a general right to participate in management decisions, such as how many staff are needed in another department. In addition, [the school director] explained that claimant should not have been involved in this particular personnel decision precisely because of her relationship with" the employee whose position was eliminated -- her life partner.

Claimant also "failed in her duty to preserve employment." It was "not her prerogative" to make a demand to be involved in the staffing position. She quit before waiting to seehow the staffing change would affect her or the school before announcing her resignation. "Claimant simply issued an ultimatum to Employer that it yield to her views, but the ultimatum did not satisfy her duty to preserve employment."

Without addressing the issue head-on, the dissent said that danger to the children, and just claimant, would constitute good cause, and that the claimant had established such a danger. The dissent felt that claimant notified the employer of the problem in advance of quitting and left the job only when the employer did not address the problem.