Monday, January 11, 2016

UC - online registration for job search services - good cause for late compliance

Office of UC Benefits Policy v. UCBR – January 7, 2016 – Cmwlth. Court – en banc.


Held:  The claimant demonstrated “good cause” for not complying with the statutory requirement that he register on-line for employment search services within 30 days of applying for UC benefits,43 P.S. sec. 801(b), 34 Pa. Code 65.11(c).

Good cause for late registration
A failure of a claimant to register timely in accordance with Section 401(b)(1)(i) of the Law is not a per se violation that automatically disqualifies a claimant from unemployment compensation.   Section 401(b)(6) of the Law provides that “[t]he [D]epartment may waive or alter the requirements of this subsection in cases or situations with respect to which the secretary finds that compliance with such requirements would be oppressive or which would be  inconsistent with the purposes of this act.” 43 P.S. §801(b)(6).  

In Sharpe v. UCBR (Pa. Cmwlth., No. 431 C.D. 2014, filed October 21, 2014), the Court addressed the Department’s ability to waive the registration requirement. We observed as follows: During the promulgation of the Department’s regulations implementing Section 401(b), a commenter asked whether a “good cause” standard should be incorporated into the regulations. 43 Pa. B. 4730, 4735 (2013). The Department replied that in most cases where a “good cause” standard is applied, it is because it is directed by statute and that it would not adopt one on its own initiative. Id. However, the Department noted that, “if a claimant’s ‘good cause’ for noncompliance with the regulation also constitutes a reason why compliance ‘would be oppressive or ... inconsistent with the purposes of’ the law, the claimant’s circumstances could be addressed under the waiver provision in [S]ection 401(b)(6) of the [L]aw and [the regulation, 34 Pa. Code §65.11(f)(6)].”    In short, where a claimant can show “good cause” for not registering on time, the Department may waive the time requirement of Section 401(b)(1)(i) of the Law.

What is “good cause” ?
The Law does not define “good cause. ”   The Supreme Court has established that it “must be determined in each case from the facts of that case.”  Barclay White Co. v. UCBR, 50 A.2d 336, 340 (Pa. 1947). In each case, “good cause” must be “so interpreted that the fundamental purpose of the [Law] shall not be destroyed.” Id. The central purpose of Section 401(b) of the Law is to require claimants to make “an active search for suitable employment” while collecting benefits.  43 P.S. §801(b). 

In Sharpe, Commonweealth Court questioned the Board’s proposed use of the strict “nunc pro tunc standard” that is used in deciding questions of jurisdiction.  The Court suggested, and the Board has since adopted, the more relaxed “good cause” standard.   The Board notes here that not every claimant can be expected to be “computer savvy” and that a single keystroke mistake can fail to effect a registration. Further, registration cannot be done by letter or by phone call.

The Board rejects the argument of the Office of UC Benefits in favor of a strict liability standard.  The Board believes, instead, that a case-by-case examination of “good cause” is appropriate and consistent with the remedial and humanitarian  objectives of the Law set out in Section 3, which should not be frustrated “by slavish adherence to technical and artificial rules.” Lehr v. UCBR, 625 A.2d 173, 175 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1993) (quoting UCBR  v. Jolliffe, 379 A.2d 109, 110 (Pa. 1977)).   The Board explains that in on-line registration waiver cases, “good cause” should be considered in the same way it is used to mitigate willful misconduct. In that context, good cause has been explained as follows: [W]e must evaluate both the reasonableness of the employer’s request in light of all the circumstances, and the employee’s reasons for noncompliance. The employee’s behavior cannot fall within “wilful misconduct” if it was justifiable or reasonable under the circumstances, since it cannot then be considered to be in wilful disregard of conduct the employer “has a right to expect.” In other words, if there was “good cause” for the employee’s action, it cannot be charged as wilful misconduct.   The UC authorities and the court “must evaluate both the reasonableness of the employer’s request in light of all the circumstances, and the employee’s reasons for noncompliance.”  McLean v. UCBR, 383 A.2d 533, 535 (Pa. 1978).

The Board concluded that, here, using a reasonableness test, Claimant had good cause for his action, or non-action, to wit.   The claimant testified without contradiction that he believed that he had properly registered, since he got several communications from “Beyond.com,” which he believed was affiliated with jobgateway.pa.gov.  The evidence shows that “[p]lainly, Claimant was not ducking registration.  As soon as he learned from the Referee that he was not registered, he responded. That very day. Because Claimant was receiving job referrals, it is clear that he was complying with the real purpose of Section 401(b), which is to ensure that a claimant “[i]s making an active search for suitable employment.” 43 P.S. §801(b). We agree with the Board’s case-by-case approach to evaluating whether a claimant had good cause for failing to timely register for employment search services under Section 401(b)(l)(i) of the Law, 43 P.S. §801(b)(l)(i). The Board reviewed the facts and exercised its judgment to conclude that good cause existed to waive the 30-day deadline for Claimant’s on-line registration. We agree and affirm its adjudication.”
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This case is also reported in the PLAN Legal Update  http://planupdate.blogspot.com/ , which is searchable and can be accessed without a password.
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