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Skidmore v. Department of Labor

Supreme Court of Vermont

July 21, 2017

Margaret Skidmore
Department of Labor

         On Appeal from Employment Security Board Maureen Tivnan, Chair

          Margret Skidmore, Pro Se, North Clarendon, Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Dirk Anderson, Montpelier, for Defendant-Appellee.

          PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund, Robinson and Eaton, JJ.

          EATON, J.

         ¶ 1.This is an appeal by Margaret Skidmore, claimant, from a finding by the Vermont Employment Security Board that she was monetarily ineligible for unemployment benefits. We conclude that the Department of Labor's Unemployment Insurance and Wage Division (Unemployment Division)[1] properly calculated claimant's benefit year and that claimant is not entitled to additional benefits under the only statutory formula for weekly benefits that applies to her case. Accordingly, we affirm.

         ¶ 2. The relevant facts found by the Employment Security Board are not at issue. Claimant left work on April 10, 2013, due to an employment-related injury, and has not engaged in full-time employment since then. Because of her injury, claimant received worker's compensation benefits in the form of temporary total disability wage replacement benefits. The temporary total disability benefits aspect of her worker's compensation claim ended on March 21, 2015. Claimant continued to receive worker's compensation benefits but only for the permanent partial impairment resulting from her workplace injury, pursuant to 21 V.S.A. § 648.

         ¶ 3. On May 18, 2015, claimant called the Unemployment Division to inquire about unemployment compensation benefits. She insists that her call was not intended to establish a claim for unemployment benefits. On the call, claimant provided the Unemployment Division with her Social Security number and other information that the Division considers necessary to open a claim. Based on the call, the Unemployment Division opened a claim that same day and made a finding that claimant was not monetarily eligible for unemployment benefits. Although the Unemployment Division issued a monetary determination, claimant claims she never received it. In December 2015, claimant and her employer reached a settlement agreement-a Form 16 agreement-for the remainder of her claim, which the Department's Worker's Compensation Division approved. See Department of Labor, Form 16 Compromise Agreement (July 2014), []. All of claimant's worker's compensation benefits terminated in December 2015.

         ¶ 4. After the parties agreed in December 2015 to settle the remainder of claimant's worker's compensation entitlements, she contacted the Unemployment Division on February 2, 2016, in anticipation of her worker's compensation benefits ending.[2] Claimant explained to the Unemployment Division that her telephone call to the Division in May 2015 had not been for purposes of establishing an unemployment benefits claim. After this second call, the Unemployment Division recalculated claimant's monetary eligibility. In its redetermination, the Division did not adjust the date from which it calculated claimant's benefit year-May 18, 2015, when she first called the Unemployment Division-but it did use a different method for calculating monetary eligibility that is based on wages earned prior to a claimant's work-related injury. Using that method, the Unemployment Division found that claimant was monetarily eligible for unemployment benefits of $419.00 per week for a year from the date she opened her claim. Claimant received weekly unemployment benefit payments until May 14, 2016, for a total payment amount of $5447.

         ¶ 5. On May 19, 2016, claimant filed a transitional claim[3] for unemployment benefits, in which she sought a determination that she was eligible to receive weekly benefits through May 13, 2017. The Unemployment Division found claimant monetarily ineligible for unemployment compensation for the year starting May 2016 and ending May 2017. Claimant appealed that determination, and following a telephone hearing, the administrative law judge affirmed the Unemployment Division's determination. Claimant then appealed to the Vermont Employment Security Board, arguing that the Unemployment Division erred when it determined that her benefit period began to run on May 18, 2015, and seeking a determination that her benefit period began on February 2, 2016, when she called the Unemployment Division after realizing that her worker's compensation benefits had stopped. The Board affirmed the administrative law judge's decision, noting that if the Board were to grant claimant the relief she sought, she "would not have been monetarily eligible for unemployment benefits under any of the four monetary methods provided by law. Instead of $5447 in unemployment benefits, the claimant would have received nothing." Claimant appealed that determination to this Court, again arguing that she had not intended to open a claim when she called the Unemployment Division in May 2015 and that her benefit period began in February 2016.

         ¶ 6. This Court's review of decisions by the Employment Security Board is "highly deferential." 863 To Go, Inc. v. Dep't of Labor, 2014 VT 61, ¶ 8, 196 Vt. 551, 99 A.3d 629. We will affirm the Board's factual findings unless they are clearly erroneous and its conclusions if they are reasonably supported by the findings. Id. Additionally, we "generally defer to [the Board's] interpretations of the statutes it is charged with administering." Blue v. Dep't of Labor, 2011 VT 84, ¶ 6, 190 Vt. 228, 27 A.3d 1096.

         ¶ 7. Vermont's Unemployment Compensation Law "is a remedial law, having benevolent objectives, and must be given liberal construction." Fleece on Earth v. Dep't of Emp't & Training, 2007 VT 29, ¶ 5, 181 Vt. 458, 923 A.2d 594. The law is designed to provide short-term protection for workers who have become unemployed for reasons beyond their control by removing economic disabilities and distress. Id. However, although we interpret the law liberally so as to protect employees, "we will not read provisions into the statute that are not present." See Elkins v. Microsoft Corp., 174 Vt. 328, 331, 817 A.2d 9, 13 (2002).

         ¶ 8. An unemployed individual is entitled to receive unemployment benefits only if the individual can establish-among other requirements-that he or she: (1) has registered for work at an employment office; (2) has made a claim for benefits by following the procedures outlined in 21 V.S.A. § 1346; (3) is able to work or, if he or she is unable to work, has provided documentation that his or her inability to work is the product of an illness or disability; (4) has been totally or partially unemployed for a waiting period of a week prior to any week for which the individual claims benefits; and (5) qualifies for a weekly benefits in accordance with 21 V.S.A. § 1338. See 21 V.S.A. § 1343(a). Under 21 V.S.A. § 1346(a), "[c]laims for benefits shall be made in accordance with such regulations as the Board may prescribe. Each employer shall post and maintain printed statements of such regulations." Pursuant to that section, employers must post an Unemployment Benefits Poster, which instructs employees to call the Department of Labor's Unemployment Insurance initial claims line. Vt. Dep't of Labor, Form A24-Unemployment Insurance, Insurance-Poster.pdf []; see also Vt. Dep't of Labor, Employer Information Manual 37, []. Neither party to this appeal disputes that the employer here complied with § 1346.

         ¶ 9. When an individual calls the initial claims line and provides the Unemployment Division with responses to a sequence of requests, including a request for the individual's Social Security number, the Unemployment Division registers the individual's claim as filed and the individual is considered a claimant.[4] See Vt. Dep't of Labor, Employer Information Manual at 37; Rule of the Board 10.A ("An individual seeking to claim benefits for a week of total or partial unemployment shall contact, by telephone or other approved method, the Unemployment Insurance Claims Center to file a new, additional or reopened claim for benefits."). Once a claimant files a claim, the Unemployment Division mails that person an information packet that outlines the claimant's rights and responsibilities. Vt. Dep't of Labor, Employer Information Manual at 37; see also Vt. Dep't of Labor, Claimant Handbook: A Guide to Unemployment Insurance in Vermont (Feb. 2017), ...

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