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Doyle v. Matthew Smith, LLC

Superior Court of Delaware, Kent

July 9, 2018

ELLA J. DOYLE, Appellant,
v.
MATTHEW SMITH, LLC and UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE APPEAL BOARD, Appellees.

          Submitted: June 6, 2018

          Ella J. Doyle, pro se

          Daniel C. Mulveny, Esquire, Department of Justice, Wilmington, Delaware, Attorney for Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board.

          Victoria W. Counihan, Esquire, Department of Justice, Wilmington, Delaware, Attorney for The Delaware Division of Unemployment Insurance.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

          Jeffrey J Clark Judge

         Appellant Ella J. Doyle (hereinafter "Ms. Doyle") appeals an adverse decision by the Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board (hereinafter "the Board" or "the UIAB") terminating her unemployment benefits. She challenges the Board's decision that she was ineligible for unemployment benefits between July 29, 2017 and August 24, 2017 because she did not participate in a "work search audit." Under the circumstances of this case, the Board committed legal error when it denied her appeal.

         The record evidences a combination of procedural and substantive errors that require reversal. Namely, the Division of Unemployment Insurance (hereinafter the "Division") denied Ms. Doyle's benefits because she did not appear at two scheduled work search audits, despite the fact that she was not required to appear based on her status. Furthermore, neither the claims deputy's initial determination nor the Division's appeals referee hearing notice cited accurate reasons for terminating her benefits. Finally, the notices did not quote or cite the particular regulations Ms. Doyle allegedly violated, and the two notices addressed different substantive issues. Given these circumstances, the Board committed legal error in accepting the appeals referee's decision where the referee refused to consider the unrebutted fact that Ms. Doyle was not required to perform the audits at issue. For these reasons and those set forth below, the Board's decision is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED for action consistent with this decision.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND AND FACTS OF RECORD

         On June 25, 2017, Ms. Doyle applied for unemployment benefits during the summer break because, as a school bus driver, she was temporarily laid off. She drove for Matthew Smith, LLC and filed her unemployment benefits application online. She did not include a return to work date in her filing. She then called to confirm that her application was complete and testified that she was told that it was.[1] The claims deputy testifying at her appeals referee hearing confirmed that she would not have been told if it was incomplete unless she asked the correct questions. Rather, the claims deputy testified that the customer service representative on the phone would have merely told her that it was considered submitted.[2]

         On July 17, 2017, the Division of Unemployment Insurance (hereinafter the "Division") sent Ms. Doyle a letter instructing her to report on July 26, 2017 for an audit of her work search logs. She did not appear for the audit. On the scheduled day, the Division sent her another letter rescheduling the appointment for August 2, 2017. She also failed to appear on that date. On August 4, 2017, a Division claims deputy sent a letter declaring Ms. Doyle ineligible for continued benefits after July 29, 2017. The noticed cited subsection 3315(1) of Title 19 of the Delaware Code as the basis for the denial.

         On August 10, 2017, Appellant appealed the denial. On August 16, 2017, she filed a letter from her employer with the Division that provided her return to work date of August 24, 2017.[3] Thereafter, on August 18, 2017, the Division sent her a notice for an appeals referee hearing to be held on September 6, 2017. That notice of hearing provided a "Statement of Issues" that referenced the subject of the upcoming hearing. Namely, the notice stated incorrectly that her benefits were subject to termination after a hearing because "[t]he claimant is not an unemployed individual and is ineligible for benefits."[4] At the hearing, the transcribed testimony demonstrated Ms. Doyle's confusion.[5] Likewise, because of the error in the notice, the appeals referee did not initially understand the issues to be covered in the hearing.[6]

         During a preliminary discussion before the hearing, the claims deputy that issued the denial stated that the scope of the hearing should have been identified as a "Section 3315(1)" issue.[7] The appeals referee then corrected the notice at the hearing by crossing out the listed purpose and wrote on it, the following: "3315(1) Comply w/ Work Search Audit."[8] The appeals referee then stated "[s]o the only issue we're going to be discussing today is whether or not you complied with the Work Search Audit Program."[9]

         The relevant undisputed evidence at the hearing can be summarized in several relevant parts. First, in submitting an online claim, Ms. Doyle did not include a return to work date in the appropriate field. Second, from the outset, Ms. Doyle understood she was not required to perform audits since she was a school bus driver who was to be unemployed for only a short period of time. Third, the Division's claims deputy confirmed that bus drivers with her status were not required by Division policy to participate in the audits. Fourth, because Ms. Doyle did not include a return to work date in her online application, the Division sent two separate notices for her to appear for an audit. She did not appear for either, claiming her post office box was closed. Finally, three weeks prior to her appeals referee hearing, Ms. Doyle provided a letter from her employer confirming that her return to work date was August 24, 2017.[10] The Division received that letter on August 16, 2017 and date and time stamped it.[11]

         On September 6, 2017, the appeals referee found Ms. Doyle ineligible for unemployment benefits effective July 29, 2017 for failing to comply with Division regulations. The stated reason for denying her benefits was that she did not attend "an REA workshop" as required by 19 Del C. § 3315(1).[12] Despite the statutory reference to her violating 19 Del. C. § 3315(1), neither the appeals referee, nor the claims deputy before her, referenced any regulation Ms. Doyle allegedly violated. Furthermore, despite amending the hearing notice on the day of the hearing to cite work audit requirements, the appeals referee refused to consider Ms. Doyle's defense relevant to that very issue. Namely, Ms. Doyle argued strenuously that given her temporary lay-off status, she was not required to participate in a work search audit. Despite the fact that three weeks prior to that de novo hearing she had submitted evidence of her return to work date, the appeals referee terminated her benefits effective July 29, 2017.

         Ms. Doyle then appealed the appeals referee's findings to the UIAB. The UIAB elected not to receive further evidence and relied solely on the appeals referee hearing record.[13] It then affirmed the referee's decision based on the record below without a further hearing. In its decision, it declined to permit additional evidence to address the incorrect notice issue, or to address the substantive issue below ignored by the appeals referee. In its final order, the Board also did not cite any regulation requiring a claimant to appear at a Division office upon request. The Board merely wrote in its decision that "[a] claimant must follow the regulations that the Department proscribes."[14]

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The UIAB is not an agency subject to the case decision requirements of Delaware's Administrative Procedures Act.[15] Nevertheless, the UIAB's enabling statute provides claimant appeals rights and the Superior Court's standard of review for such appeals. Pursuant to 19 Del. C. § 3323(a), the Superior Court's jurisdiction is limited to a review for errors of law, together with a limited factual review. Namely, the review is "limited to the question of whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the Board's findings and whether such findings are free from legal error. In such an appeal, this Court "does not weigh the evidence, determine questions of credibility, or make its own factual findings."[16]

         Due process requires that a claimant receives adequate notice and an opportunity to be heard.[17] Proper notice includes informing "the affected individual of, and permitting adequate preparation for, an impending hearing.[18] Proper notice must also reasonably apprise a party of the issues involved, and provide that party a reasonable time to prepare a defense.

         III. Analysis

         Here, the Board committed legal error by terminating Ms. Doyle's benefits after an appeal referee proceeded with an improperly noticed hearing and refused to consider evidence that Ms. Doyle was not required to participate in a work search audit pursuant to Department of Labor regulations. With regard to the improper notice, the Division identified the scope of the upcoming hearing as covering whether she was an "unemployed individual."[19] The notice's stated purpose for the hearing was incorrect. Namely, at no time in the entire process did the ...


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