Unemployment Benefits Upheld Where Voluntary Departure Was Prompted by a “Hostile Work Environment”

In In re Cohen, No. 522119, 2017 WL 3176221, at *1 (N.Y. App. Div. July 27, 2017), the Appellate Division upheld the Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board’s (UIAB) adoption of an Administrative Law Judge’s finding that the claimant (a paralegal) was entitled to unemployment insurance benefits where she voluntarily left her employment in light of a hostile work environment she experienced.

Claimant, a paralegal, left her employment after a number of disciplinary charges were lodged against her. The parties’ stipulation of settlement provided, inter alia, that claimant would waive her right to a statutory hearing and would resign, in exchange for being allowed to collect her accrued annual leave and a “neutral reference.” The stipulation contained no admission of misconduct and no finding of wrongdoing by the claimant was made.

Claimant filed for unemployment benefits. The Department of Labor initially disqualified her from receiving such benefits, because she “voluntarily left her employment without good cause or, alternatively, lost her employment due to misconduct.” After a hearing, an ALJ overruled the DOL’s initial determinations, finding that “claimant had good cause to separate from her employment and had not otherwise committed disqualifying misconduct” and that “claimant had been subject to a hostile work environment.” The UIAB affirmed the ALJ’s decision. The Appellate Division affirmed.

The law:

As a general proposition, a claimant who voluntarily leaves his or her employment without good cause will not be entitled to receive unemployment insurance benefits (see e.g. Matter of Flint–Jones [Federal Reserve Bankof N.Y.-Commissioner of Labor], 144 AD3d 1288, 1288–1289 [2016] ), and the same holds true for a claimant who engages in disqualifying misconduct (see e.g. Matter of Trunzo [Commissioner of Labor], 145 AD3d 1308, 1309 [2016] ). That said, “[a] claimant who voluntarily leaves his or her position in the face of disciplinary charges may qualify for unemployment benefits if the actions did not amount to misconduct” (Matter of Jimenez [New York County Dist. Attorney’s Off.-Commissioner of Labor], 20 AD3d 843, 843 [2005] [internal quotation marks and citation omitted]; accord Matter of Cohen [Town of Brookhaven–Commissioner of Labor], 91 AD3d 998, 998 [2012], lv dismissed 19 NY3d 831 [2012]; Matter of Straw [Rocky Point Union Free School Dist.-Commissioner of Labor], 32 AD3d 1098, 1099 [2006] ). “Whether a claimant has engaged in disqualifying misconduct is a factual question for the Board to resolve and its determination will not be disturbed if supported by substantial evidence

Applying the law, the court held:

Claimant and the employer’s witnesses presented competing accounts of claimant’s work history, her work product, her general demeanor and her interaction with others in her office. Without recounting the extensive testimony offered on these points, suffice it to say that the employer portrayed claimant as an insubordinate malcontent who failed to timely and appropriately complete assignments or respond to various emails or directives. Claimant, on the other hand, testified at length as to the “bullying” and harassment that she endured at the hands of her supervisors, recounted the manner in which she was verbally threatened by certain individuals in her office and disputed the employer’s account of her overall work performance. This conflicting testimony presented factual and credibility issues for the Board to resolve (see Matter of Saunders [Life Adj. Ctr., Inc.-Commissioner of Labor], 106 AD3d 1317, 1317–1318 [2013] ). As noted previously, the stipulation of settlement entered into between claimant and the employer contained no finding or admission of wrongdoing on the part of claimant. Further, upon crediting claimant’s testimony as to the nature of her work environment and her reasons for resigning, the Board agreed with the ALJ’s findings that claimant’s actions did not rise to the level of disqualifying misconduct but, rather, were undertaken in direct response to her “hostile” and “untenable” work environment-an environment that, in turn, provided “a compelling reason for her to resign.” As there is substantial evidence to support the Board’s decision in this regard, it will not be disturbed-despite the presence of other evidence in the record that could support a contrary conclusion