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Norwood v. Roxana Volunteer Fire Co.

Superior Court of Delaware

September 9, 2019

DANIELLE NORWOOD, Appellant,
v.
ROXANA VOLUNTEER FIRE COMPANY, and UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE APPEAL BOARD, Appellees.

          Submitted: July 2, 2019

         In and for Kent County

         Upon Consideration of Appellant's Appeal from the Decision of the Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board - REVERSED and REMANDED

          ORDER

          JEFFREY J CLARK, JUDGE

         On this 9th day of September, 2019, having considered the briefs and the record in this case, it appears that:

         1. Appellant Danielle Norwood appeals an adverse decision of the Delaware Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board (hereinafter the "UIAB" or the "Board"). The Board dismissed her appeal after neither her nor her counsel appeared in person at the hearing to request a continuance.

         2. Ms. Norwood worked for the Roxana Volunteer Fire Company (hereinafter "Roxana") from approximately November 2, 2016, until her termination on September 25, 2017. Thereafter, she filed a claim for unemployment benefits on September 30, 2018. After a hearing, a Claims Deputy found in her favor and awarded her benefits.

         3. Roxana then appealed the Claims Deputy's decision and an Appeals Referee reversed the decision on January 31, 2019. Ms. Norwood timely appealed the Referee's decision to the UIAB and a hearing was scheduled for February 27, 2019. Six days before that hearing, Ms. Norwood requested a continuance to hire counsel. The UIAB granted the continuance and rescheduled the hearing for March 13, 2019.

         4. After Ms. Norwood hired counsel, her attorney entered his appearance and sent a written continuance request by facsimile on March 6, 2019. The UIAB received it seven days before the hearing. In it, her attorney informed the Board that he could not appear at the hearing on March 13th because he had a prior scheduled court conflict. The UIAB never replied to the request in writing. What follows is counsel's representations regarding what happened. Namely, counsel for Ms. Norwood represents that the day prior to the hearing, on March 12th, a UIAB employee called him and left a message requesting a return call. A paralegal at his firm returned that call the same day, and no one answered. She then left a message requesting a return call. After receiving no response, the paralegal called the Board again the next morning. At that point, UIAB personnel told her that the Board had dismissed the case because Ms. Norwood failed to appear in person at the hearing to request the continuance.

         5. The record is silent regarding these continuance related exchanges except for (1) the written continuance request by Ms. Norwood's attorney, and (2) a handwritten note on the request, as it appears in the Board's certified record. The note confirms Ms. Norwood's position regarding the disposition of the request. Namely, it reads that it was "denied. must. cont. in person."[1]

         6. Thereafter, Ms. Norwood filed a motion for rehearing on March 29, 2019, eleven days after the UIAB mailed its decision. The UIAB denied the motion for rehearing as untimely. Ms. Norwood then filed a timely appeal in this Court.

         7. This Court's appellate review of the UIAB's factual findings is limited to determining whether the Board's decision was supported by substantial evidence and whether it committed an error of law.[2] Substantial evidence means "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion."[3] On appeal, the Court views the facts in the light most favorable to the prevailing party below.[4] Moreover, the Court does not weigh the evidence, determine questions of credibility, or make its own factual findings.[5] Absent errors of law, which are reviewed de novo, a decision of the UIAB supported by substantial evidence will be upheld unless the Board abused its discretion.[6] The Board abuses its discretion when its decision exceeds the bounds of reason in view of the circumstances.[7] As with other fact finding bodies, requests for a continuance are left to the discretion of the Board.[8] Accordingly, "a discretionary ruling by . . . [an] administrative body on a motion for a continuance will not be set aside, unless that decision is unreasonable and capricious."[9]

         8. Trial judges have wide discretion when deciding requests for a continuance.[10] Appellate courts are reluctant to reverse such decisions.[11] In this administrative context, the Board has the same level of discretion as if it were a trial court. Such discretion, however, is not without limits. Courts and administrative agencies must remain mindful that "a rigid insistence by the court [or agency] upon expedition of trial [or a hearing] in the face of a justifiable request for delay can render the right to defend an empty formality."[12] In certain cases, a denial of a continuance may be unreasonable to the degree that it is arbitrary and capricious.

         9. Here, Ms. Norwood (through her attorney) requested a continuance in writing greater than six days before the hearing. By doing so, it met the requirements in the UIAB's regulations. After Ms. Norwood's counsel sent the request, the record demonstrates no positive or negative response from the Board. While the Court understands the Board's need to expedite hearings and its broad discretion ...


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