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Beasley v. Department of Labor

Supreme Court of Vermont

September 21, 2018

Lionel Beasley
v.
Department of Labor (Champlain College, Inc., Employer)

          Supreme Court On Appeal from Employment Security Board Michael Harrington, Chair.

          Kelli Kazmarski, Vermont Legal Aid, Inc., St. Johnsbury, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Dirk Anderson, Montpelier, for Defendant-Appellee.

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

          SKOGLUND, J.

         ¶ 1. Claimant Lionel Beasley appeals a decision of the Employment Security Board, which denied him unemployment compensation benefits because it found that he performed services for an educational institution and was considered to have a reasonable assurance to perform services in a similar capacity for the next regularly scheduled academic term under 21 V.S.A. § 1343(c)(1). We affirm.

         ¶ 2. The relevant factual background is as follows. Claimant was first employed by Champlain College as an adjunct professor during the 2015-2016 academic year-he taught three classes during both the fall and spring terms. At the end of the spring 2016 term, claimant applied for unemployment compensation benefits. Although his claim was initially denied by a claims adjudicator, on appeal, an administrative judge reversed and granted benefits. In granting benefits, the administrative judge noted that because claimant had not received an employment offer letter for the upcoming academic term and had been notified that at least one of his classes may not be offered due to low enrollment, "the uncertainties for the upcoming term are sufficiently great that [claimant] cannot be said to have a reasonable assurance of returning to the same or similar work that he performed in the previous academic term."

         ¶ 3. Claimant was then contracted for the 2016-2017 academic year. During both the fall and spring terms, he taught the same three classes as he did the previous academic year. The employment offer letter he received for the spring 2017 term contained the following relevant information: "This appointment is contingent on class size. Classes may be cancelled due to low enrollment. If this class is cancelled, or re-assigned to a full time faculty member, you shall be paid $1, 000 provided you signed and returned this letter within 15 days of the date of the letter."

         ¶ 4. At the end of the spring 2017 term, he again applied for unemployment compensation benefits. Claimant's claim was denied by a claims adjudicator, who found that he had a reasonable assurance of employment during the following term. Claimant appealed the denial, an evidentiary telephone hearing was held, and an administrative judge upheld the denial of benefits. The administrative judge agreed with the claims adjudicator that claimant had reasonable assurance to perform the same services during the next academic term and noted that claimant "and his attorney want[ed] to interpret the term 'reasonable assurance' as an absolute guarantee of employment, and that simply is not the correct interpretation." The administrative judge went on to comment that "the Department [of Labor] must only find that it is highly probable that the same job is available, and the credible facts in the record show[ed] that to be the case in this instance." Claimant appealed the administrative judge's decision to the Employment Security Board. After hearing and review, the Board issued a decision upholding the denial because it found the administrative judge's conclusions "factually supported and legally correct." Claimant appeals the Board's decision.

         ¶ 5. In order to be eligible to receive unemployment compensation benefits in Vermont, an individual must meet certain conditions set forth in 21 V.S.A. § 1343(a).[1] However, an individual who satisfies § 1343(a)'s requirements may still be precluded from receiving unemployment compensation benefits. Under § 1343(c)(1), if an individual performs services "in an instructional . . . capacity for an educational institution," benefits are unavailable "during the period between two successive academic years or terms . . . if there is a contract or reasonable assurance that such individual will perform services in any such capacity for any educational institution in the second of such academic years or terms."

         ¶ 6. In December 2016, the U.S. Department of Labor issued an Unemployment Insurance Program Letter (Program Letter) outlining a multi-step process for states to use when determining whether a claimant has a "contract" or "reasonable assurance of employment" in the relevant part of the Federal Unemployment Tax Act, 26 U.S.C. § 3304(a)(6)(A), to which the Vermont statute directly correlates.[2] The Program Letter explains that "[b]efore making a determination about whether there is a contract or reasonable assurance, the state must determine whether the employment offered the following academic year or term . . . meets three prerequisites." First, "[t]he offer of employment may be written, oral, or implied, and must be a genuine offer, that is, an offer made by an individual with actual authority to offer employment." Second, "[t]he employment offered in the following academic year or term . . . must be in the same capacity . . . as the previous academic year's or term's employment." And third, "[t]he economic conditions of the job offered may not be considerably less in the following academic year or term . . . than in the first academic year or term." If any of the prerequisites are not met, the state "cannot deny the claimant [unemployment compensation benefits] based on the between and within term denial provisions."

         ¶ 7. If all three prerequisites are met, "the state agency must next determine whether the offer is a contract," which the Program Letter defines as "an enforceable, non-contingent agreement that provides for compensation: (1) for an entire academic year; or (2) on an annual basis." If the state agency finds that no contract exists, it must then "determine whether the claimant has a reasonable assurance to perform professional services in the following academic term or year." The Program Letter outlines findings a state agency must make "in determining if the claimant has a reasonable assurance." First, the state agency must determine "[i]f any contingencies in the offer are within the employer's . . . control," meaning "contingencies where the employer has the ability to satisfy the contingency." If contingencies are within an employer's control, the claimant does not have a reasonable assurance and thus is entitled to unemployment compensation benefits if otherwise eligible. Next, "[t]he state agency must analyze the totality of [the] circumstances to find whether it is highly probable that there is a job available for the claimant the following academic year or term." The Program Letter outlines some factors to consider, including funding, "enrollment, the nature of the course . . ., the claimant's seniority, budgeting and assignment practices of the school, the number of offers made in relation to the number of potential teaching assignments, the period of student registration, and any other contingencies." And, finally, "[i]f the offer contains a contingency, the state agency must give primary weight to the contingent nature of the offer," which requires "the state agency to find whether it is highly probable that the contingency will be met." The Program Letter clarifies that "[t]he term 'highly probable' is intended to mean it is very likely that the contingency will be met." "If it is not highly probable the contingency will be met, there is no reasonable assurance because the contingent nature of the offer outweighs any other facts indicating that the claimant has a 'reasonable assurance.' "

         ¶ 8. On appeal, claimant argues that he is entitled to unemployment compensation benefits because he had no contract or reasonable assurance of employment and that the Board did not properly analyze his claim in accordance with the Program Letter's guidance. Claimant asserts that the Board made incomplete findings of fact, which did not identify all of the contingencies contained in the plain language of claimant's past employment offer letters, and that a complete and accurate list of findings based on the plain language of the employment offer letter cannot support the Board's legal conclusion that claimant had reasonable assurance of employment. And, finally, claimant posits that public policy and the purposes underlying Vermont's unemployment compensation statutes dictate that claimant and other adjunct faculty should be entitled to benefits because they are unemployed and have no reasonable assurance of future employment.

         ¶ 9. "Our 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. "When reviewing a Board decision, this Court must determine whether the evidence before the Board reasonably tends to support its findings and whether the findings in turn support the Board's conclusions and decisions." Harrington v. Dep't of Emp't Sec., 142 Vt. 340, 344, 455 A.2d 333, 336 (1982) (quotations and alterations omitted). We "generally defer to [the Board's] interpretations of the statutes it is charged with administering," and we "will uphold its factual findings unless clearly erroneous, and its [legal] conclusions if reasonably supported by the findings." Blue v. Dep't of Labor, 2011 VT 84, ¶ 6, 190 Vt. 228, 27 A.3d 1096. In Vermont, "[t]he claimant has the burden of showing his initial eligibility for benefits." Id. ΒΆ 7 (quotation omitted). The Program Letter explains that "the state agency is responsible for determining whether a claimant has a 'reasonable assurance' of performing services the following academic year" and that "states must follow regular fact-finding procedures for ...


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