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Seward v. Administrator, Unemployment Compensation Act

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

July 30, 2019

KARIM SEWARD
v.
ADMINISTRATOR, UNEMPLOYMENT COMPENSATION ACT, ET AL.

          Submitted on briefs April 23, 2019

         Procedural History

         Appeal from the decision of the Employment Security Board of Review affirming the decision by an appeals referee that the plaintiff was not entitled to certain unemployment compensation benefits, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Waterbury and tried to the court, Hon. Joseph H. Pellegrino, judge trial referee; judgment sustaining the appeal and remanding the case for further proceedings, from which the named defendant appealed to this court. Reversed; judgment directed.

          Beth Z. Margulies and Philip M. Schulz, assistant attorneys general, and George Jepsen, former attorney general, filed a brief for the appellant (named defendant).

          DiPentima, C. J., and Alvord and Diana, Js.

          Opinion

          DIPENTIMA, C. J.

         The defendant, the Administrator of the Unemployment Compensation Act, appeals from the judgment of the Superior Court reversing the decision of the Employment Security Board of Review (board) denying benefits to the plaintiff, Karim Seward, and remanding the matter to the board for further proceedings.[1] On appeal, the defendant claims that the court improperly (1) found and relied on facts beyond those certified by the board and (2) used those facts to determine that the board had abused its discretion in concluding that the plaintiff had not established good cause to open the decision of the appeals referee. We agree and, accordingly, reverse the judgment of the Superior Court.

         The following facts and procedural history are relevant to our discussion. Cowan Systems, LLC (Cowan), employed the plaintiff as a truck driver from August 23, 2016, until March 15, 2017. On March 11, 2017, the plaintiff drove out of Cowan's truck yard in the course of his work duties. Shortly thereafter, the trailer separated from the truck, resulting in approximately $10, 000 in damages. At the commencement of the plaintiff's employment, Cowan had informed the plaintiff of the requirement to conduct a ‘‘pull test, '' which was designed to prevent separation of the trailer from the truck, ensure safety and prevent property damage. Despite the plaintiff's claim that the separation had been the result of equipment failure, Cowan concluded that the plaintiff had failed to conduct the ‘‘pull test'' and considered the incident to have been a ‘‘preventable accident'' and therefore terminated his employment.

         On April 24, 2017, the defendant approved the plaintiff's application for unemployment compensation benefits. Cowan appealed the defendant's determination to the Employment Security Appeals Division. The appeals referee, in a May 19, 2017 decision, noted that the plaintiff had failed to participate in the May 18, 2017 hearing. The referee further stated that the issue was ‘‘whether the employer discharged the [plaintiff] for wilful misconduct in the course of his employment.'' After setting forth the factors for determining whether an employee had been discharged from employment for wilful misconduct, and thus was ineligible for unemployment compensation benefits; see General Statutes § 31-236 (a) (2) (B); the referee found that the accident resulted from the plaintiff's failure to conduct a ‘‘pull test.'' Applying the applicable statute[2] and the relevant factors set forth in the Regulations of Connecticut State Agencies, [3] the referee determined that the plaintiff had ‘‘knowingly violated a reasonable employer policy which was uniformly enforced and reasonably applied.'' The referee further concluded that the plaintiff was disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits pursuant to § 31-236 (a) (2) (B). Accordingly, the referee sustained Cowan's appeal. The plaintiff's subsequent motion to open the referee's decision was denied for failing to ‘‘[cite] any reason that could constitute good cause for failing to participate in the referee's hearing on May 18, 2017.''

         The plaintiff filed a timely appeal to the board, where the issues were ‘‘whether the [plaintiff] has demonstrated good cause for failing to participate in the referee's hearing which was scheduled for May 18, 2017; and whether the referee properly denied the [plaintiff's] motion to [open].'' In his ‘‘written argument'' in support of his appeal, the plaintiff stated: ‘‘I was totally unaware of the scheduled hearing date of May 18th and [it was] denied based on the fact of not being involved. I was not involved in that hearing because I was not aware of it. When I received the hearing packet, it wasn't marked to indicate it was from the appeals department, nothing to show it was anything different from what is normally sent after starting a claim and I missed the date.''

         The board concluded that this was not a sufficient excuse for failing to appear at the May 18, 2017 hearing, stating: ‘‘[W]e find that the [plaintiff's] failure to timely read his mail constituted poor mail handling, which does not excuse his failure to participate in the referee's May 18, 2017 hearing. We conclude that the [plaintiff] has not shown good cause for failing to appear at the referee's hearing and that the referee did not err in denying his motion to [open]. By choosing not to attend the referee's hearing despite having received notice of the hearing, the [plaintiff] has waived the right to object to the referee's findings of fact and conclusions of law which were based on the testimony and evidence presented at that hearing.'' (Footnote omitted.) Accordingly, the board affirmed the decision of the referee.

         On September 13, 2017, the plaintiff filed an appeal with the Superior Court.[4] Approximately three months later, the defendant filed a motion for a judgment to dismiss the appeal. On February 14, 2018, the court, after conducting a hearing, issued a memorandum of decision overruling the defendant's motion and remanding the matter to the board with direction to grant the motion to open to afford the plaintiff an opportunity to defend the initial ruling that he was entitled to unemployment benefits. The court ‘‘observed that the [plaintiff] was just an ordinary, working class person a bit overwhelmed with the amount of mail he was receiving . . . . When the [plaintiff] realized his error, he immediately requested that the matter be reopened so that he could have an opportunity to present his case. To deny the [plaintiff] an opportunity to have his day in ‘court' when he already was adjudicated eligible for benefits is, in the opinion of this court, a gross abuse of discretion, especially when he immediately responded to the decision of the [board] when he dis- covered his mistake. There would not have been a long delay in the process if his request would have been granted and he would have had an opportunity to present his side of the story.'' This appeal followed.[5]

         As an initial matter, we set forth the general principles regarding an appeal involving unemployment benefits. ‘‘In the processing of unemployment compensation claims . . . the administrator, the referee and the employment security board of review decide the facts and then apply the appropriate law. . . . [The administrator] is charged with the initial responsibility of determining whether claimants are entitled to unemployment benefits. [See generally] General Statutes § 31-241. . . . This initial determination becomes final unless the claimant or the employer files an appeal within twenty-one days after notification of the determination is mailed. [General Statutes § 31-241(a)]. Appeals are taken to the employment security appeals division which consists of a referee section and the board of review. [See] General Statutes §§ 31-237a [and] 31-237b. . . . The first stage of claims review lies with a referee who hears the claim de novo. The referee's function in conducting this hearing is to make inquiry in such manner, through oral testimony or written and printed records, as is best calculated to ascertain the substantial rights of the parties and carry out justly the provisions . . . of the law. General Statutes § 31-244. This decision is appealable to the board of review. General Statutes § 31-249. Such appeals are heard on the record of the hearing before the referee although the board may take additional evidence or testimony if justice so requires. [General Statutes § 31-249]. Any party, including the administrator, may thereafter continue the appellate process by appealing to the Superior Court and, ultimately, to [the Appellate and Supreme Courts].'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Ray v. Administrator, Unemployment Compensation Act, 133 Conn.App. 527, 531-32, 36 A.3d 269 (2012); see also Addona v. Administrator, Unemployment Compensation Act, 121 Conn.App. 355, 360-61, 996 A.2d 280 (2010) (appeals from board to Superior Court are exempted from Uniform Administrative Procedure Act, General Statutes § 4-166 et seq., and controlled by § 31-249b).

         The standard of review for judicial review of this type of case is well established. ‘‘In appeals under . . . § 31-249b, the Superior Court does not retry the facts or hear evidence but rather sits as an appellate court to review only the record certified and filed by the board of review. Practice Book § [22-9]. The court is bound by the findings of subordinate facts and reasonable factual conclusions made by the appeals referee where, as here, the board . . . adopted the findings and affirmed the decision of the referee. . . . Judicial review of the conclusions of law reached administratively is also limited. The court's ultimate duty is only to decide whether, in light of the evidence, the board of review has acted unreasonably, arbitrarily, illegally, or in abuse of its discretion. . . . Nonetheless, issues of law afford a reviewing court a broader standard of review when compared to a challenge to the factual findings of the ...


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