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LaFountain v. Department of Labor

Supreme Court of Vermont

March 16, 2018

Louis F. LaFountain
Department of Labor (Eden General Store, Inc., Employer)

         On Appeal from Employment Security Board Michael Harrington, Chair

          Louis F. LaFountain, Pro Se, Eden, Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Dirk Anderson, Department of Labor, Montpelier, Defendant-Appellee.

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

          REIBER, C. JUDGE.

         ¶ 1. Claimant appeals pro se from the Employment Security Board's denial of his claim for unemployment compensation benefits. We conclude that the Board's findings do not support its conclusion, and we therefore reverse and remand for additional proceedings.

         ¶ 2. Claimant was employed as a store manager at the Eden General Store for three- and-a-half years. His last day of work was July 8, 2016. In late February 2017, claimant sought unemployment compensation benefits, and a claims adjudicator denied his request. The claims adjudicator found that claimant left his employment due to a certified health condition, which precluded the discharge of duties inherent in such employment. See 21 V.S.A. § 1344(a)(3) (stating that claimant is disqualified for benefits "[f]or not more than six weeks nor less than one week immediately following the filing of a claim for benefits (in addition to the waiting period), " if claimant left job "without good cause attributable to" employer "because of a health condition, as certified by a health care provider . . ., which precludes the discharge of duties inherent in such employment"). She further found that claimant was currently unable to work and that he therefore was ineligible for unemployment compensation. See id. § 1343(a)(3) (stating that to be eligible for benefits, claimant must be "able to work" and be "available for work").

         ¶ 3. Claimant appealed this decision to an administrative law judge (ALJ). Following a hearing, the ALJ made the following findings. Claimant has Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), which worsened during his last year of employment to the point that he had to reduce his hours to part-time and eventually stop working. Claimant needs a well-ventilated or purified-air environment to prevent exacerbation of his COPD. Claimant has been working with Vocational Rehabilitation (VocRehab) to explore part-time employment. Several months earlier, in late February 2017, claimant had applied for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits.

         ¶ 4. The ALJ concluded that claimant was not able to work, and thus, he was ineligible for unemployment benefits. She cited the fact that claimant's COPD was exacerbated by movement unless he was in a well-ventilated or air-purified environment. She also noted that claimant's VocRehab specialist had not specifically identified any type of work that claimant could perform given his limitations. Finally, the ALJ reasoned that claimant was pursuing SSDI benefits and that to obtain such benefits, he had to certify that he could not work. Claimant appealed this decision, and following a hearing, the Board adopted the ALJ's findings and conclusions as its own. This appeal followed.

         ¶ 5. Claimant challenges the Board's conclusion that he was not able and available to work. He maintains that the Board's findings do not support its conclusion. He notes that under Vermont case law, actual job vacancies need not exist for him to be entitled to unemployment compensation. He also questions why his application for SSDI benefits should disqualify him from obtaining unemployment compensation. Claimant argues that the unemployment laws should be liberally construed to provide employees with a basic financial bridge to their next job. He contends that he can work part-time and that he is entitled to benefits.

         ¶ 6. The Board's decision is entitled to "great weight on appeal." Fleece on Earth v. Dep't of Emp't & Training, 2007 VT 29, ¶ 4, 181 Vt. 458, 923 A.2d 594 (quotation omitted). We will affirm the Board's factual findings unless they are clearly erroneous, and we will uphold its legal conclusions if they are reasonably supported by the findings. 863 To Go, Inc. v. Dep't of Labor, 2014 VT 61, ¶ 8, 196 Vt. 551, 99 A.3d 629. We agree with claimant that the Board's findings are deficient here.

         ¶ 7. At the outset, we emphasize that the purpose of the unemployment compensation law is not "to provide sick benefits nor to compensate those who cease working because of illness." Willard v. Vt. Unemployment Comp. Comm'n, 122 Vt. 398, 404, 173 A.2d 843, 847 (1961); see also Stryker v. Dep't of Emp't Sec., 134 Vt. 224, 226, 356 A.2d 534, 535 (1976) ("It is not the function of unemployment compensation to operate as disability benefits, provide pension benefits or perform the function of welfare payments."). Instead, the law is designed "to assist members of the working force who are made jobless by operations of the economy over which they have no individual control." Willard, 122 Vt. at 402, 292 A.2d at 846. As indicated above, an individual must be "able" and "available" to work to be entitled to receive benefits. 21 V.S.A. § 1343(a)(3); In re Platt, 130 Vt. 329, 332, 292 A.2d 822, 825 (1972). To be "available" to work, he or she must be "genuinely attached to the labor market." Willard, 122 Vt. at 402, 173 A.2d at 846 (quotation omitted).

         ¶ 8. We have explained that a "labor market for an individual exists when there is a market for the type of services which [claimant] offers in the geographical area in which [claimant] offers them." Id. (quotation omitted). Claimant is correct that actual job vacancies need not exist for an individual to be entitled to benefits. See id. (explaining that term "market" as used above "does not mean that job vacancies must exist" as "purpose of unemployment compensation is to compensate for the lack of appropriate vacancies" (quotation omitted)). At the same time, however, claimant must identify particular employment services that he can offer and "establish the existence of a real and significant market" for these services "in the geographical area." Stryker, 134 Vt. at 226, 356 A.2d at 535 (citing Willard, 122 Vt. at 405, 173 A.2d at 843 for proposition "that one who limits his availability must, to be eligible for benefits, establish the existence of a real and significant market for the employment services he offers in the geographical area").

         ¶ 9. The Board's findings do not adequately address these issues. Claimant testified that he wanted to work and that he could work part-time. Claimant stated that he had not been applying for any work but that he had been going to VocRehab every week and that his counselor was trying to match him up with a job that fit his needs.[1] Claimant believed that he could continue to do retail work as long as he was sitting down. He also stated that he could perform computer work, preferably from home. Claimant testified that he had experience working on his computer from home and that he was exploring this type of work with his VocRehab counselor. Claimant's VocRehab counselor did not testify at the hearing. Instead, claimant submitted a letter from her in which she stated that claimant was an active participant working with VocRehab and the Vermont Association of Business, Industry and Rehabilitation (VABIR) in exploring part-time employment. She found it apparent that ...

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