Thursday, May 27, 2010

UC - voluntary quit - working conditions, health reasons

Astolfi v. UCBR - Cmwlth. Court - May 27, 2010 (2-1 decision)

The court reversed a UCBR decision in favor of the claimant, ruling "[c]oncluding that the facts, as found, do not support the Board’s conclusion that Claimant resigned from her job for necessitous and compelling reasons." It found that her work situation was "uncomfortable but not intolerable," and that a quit for health reasons was negated by claimant's failure to mention those reasons to her employer.

Claimant testified that a chaotic work environment caused her to develop high blood pressure and to incur bouts with hives. Claimant testified that two doctors had advised her to resign from her job. In support, she introduced a note from her psychiatrist stating that Claimant “expressed to me severe stress from the conditions at her work.” Claimant also offered a note from her chiropractor opining that Claimant’s headaches “were likely associated with clenching of the jaw and cervical spine dysfunction.” Dr. Kelly observed that clenching of the teeth is a “direct response to stress,” and that Claimant had complained of work stress on several occasions. Dr. Kelly wrote that she had “seen a difference in [Claimant’s] health since she left her job.”

Claimant believed her resignation was medically necessary, and reiterated at a remand hearing that two doctors had advised her to resign. Claimant offered a follow-up letter from her chiropractor stating that "I had asked [Claimant] on several occasions if it would be possible for her to leave her job due to medical reasons. Her current occupation was adversely affecting her health and I felt that it was necessary for her to leave her job if she was going to improve. Her health was declining largely due to the ongoing stress at her work place." At the remand hearing, the employer, a dentist, disputed Claimant’s characterization of the work atmosphere and the events leading up to Claimant’s resignation.

The Board reversed the Referee’s denial of benefits and granted Claimant’s claim for benefits. Acknowledging that verbal reprimands do not justify a voluntary quit, the Board also observed that this is not the case for verbal abuse. The Board credited Claimant’s testimony that she was “verbally abused” by the employer and found, further, that Claimant took reasonable steps to preserve her employment by presenting her concerns to the employer.

The court found, as a matter of law, that claimant had not shown a necessitous and compelling reason to quit her job. Whether a claimant had cause of a necessitous and compelling nature for leaving work is a question of law subject to this Court’s review. Wasko v. UCBR, 488 A.2d 388, 389 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1985). Based upon the record before us, we cannot say that Claimant’s work environment was intolerable or that a reasonable person would have acted in the same manner.

Our case law distinguishes normal workplace strains from pressures extreme enough to justify a resignation. As we have explained: Resentment of a reprimand, absent unjust accusations, profane language or abusive conduct …; mere disappointment with wages …; and personality conflicts, absent an intolerable working atmosphere … do not amount to necessitous and compelling causes. Lynn v. UCBR, 427 A.2d 736, 737 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1981).

Claimant was not publicly reprimanded or accused of being a criminal like her counterpart in First Federal. She was not subjected to the kinds of intolerable abusive language experienced by successful claimants in other voluntary quit cases. Claimant’s testimony demonstrated “resentment” and “personality conflicts,” Lynn, 427 A.2d at 737, but not an intolerable work environment. Being “yelled” at for talking too much to patients, which is the worst Claimant suffered, is not comparable to being called names or being unjustly accused of criminal conduct. Her work environment was uncomfortable, but not intolerable.

The majority rejected the dissent's emphasis on the fact that Claimant was advised by her chiropractor to quit her job, stating that a reasonable person suffering from rashes, headaches and high blood pressure caused by circumstances at work would feel compelled to terminate her employment. The majority said that this was "beside the point, since Claimant did not establish the elements necessary to have a compelling medical reason to quit.

Pigeon-holing claimant's argument as one relying solely on health reasons, the majority said that to establish health problems as a compelling reason to quit, the claimant must (1) offer competent testimony that adequate health reasons existed to justify the voluntary termination, (2) have informed the employer of the health problems and (3) be available to work if reasonable accommodations can be made. Genetin v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 499 Pa. 125, 451 A.2d 1353 (1982). Failure to meet any one of these conditions bars a claim for unemployment compensation….Lee Hospital v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 637 A.2d 695, 698 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1994) (emphasis added) (citation omitted). Claimant met with the employer to discuss the tension between her coworkers, but she never informed the employer of any health problems or that her chiropractor had advised her to quit. Absent such evidence, Claimant’s alleged health problems are simply not relevant.


Here, Employer’s verbal abuse produced pressure on Claimant that was both real and substantial. Indeed, the pressure caused Claimant to suffer from rashes, headaches and high blood pressure. Moreover, any reasonable person suffering such physical maladies as a result of circumstances at work would be compelled to terminate her employment. In fact, Claimant’s physician advised Claimant to do just that. To the extent Employer’s verbal assaults on Claimant were due to personality conflicts, given their effect on Claimant’s health, they were intolerable. A claimant should not be required to continue to endure a work environment that causes such afflictions as rashes, headaches and high blood pressure.

The majority states, “We cannot say on this record that Claimant’s work environment was intolerable or that a reasonable person would have acted in the same manner.” In other words, the majority concludes that: (1) Claimant should continue to tolerate the rashes, headaches and high blood pressure caused by Employer’s insults and yelling; and (2) Claimant’s physician is not a reasonable person for suggesting that Claimant quit her job for the sake of her health. I cannot agree with these conclusions.

The majority also suggests that, pursuant to case law, verbal abuse cannot be a necessitous and compelling reason to leave employment unless it is public, racial or sexual in nature. (Majority op. at 6-7.) However, abusive conduct of any kind is always a necessitous and compelling reason for leaving employment. First Federal Savings Bank v. UCBR, 957 A.2d 811 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2008) (stating that a claimant need not indefinitely subject herself to abusive conduct). Moreover, whether an employer’s conduct is abusive is a question of fact, and the majority acknowledges that the “Board credited Claimant’s testimony that she was ‘verbally abused’ by [Employer].”

Accordingly, I would affirm.