A New Jersey Appellate Division panel—in Blake v. Board of Review, Dep’t of Labor, No. A-2940-15T3—held that a 2015 amendment to New Jersey’s Unemployment Compensation Law (“UCL”) does not authorize unemployment benefits to an employee who accepts a job offer from another employer but has that offer rescinded prior to commencing the new employment. The opinion, which was approved for publication on September 28, 2017, conflicts with another Appellate Division panel that came to the opposite conclusion just one month prior in McClain v. Board of Review, Dep’t of Labor, No. A-4319-15 (approved for publication on August 29, 2017). Both panels believed that the amendment’s plain language supported their respective interpretations.
Under the UCL, applicants are ineligible to receive unemployment benefits if they “left work voluntarily without good cause…” In 2015, the UCL was amended to add an exemption to the voluntary-leave disqualification. The relevant language of the amendment, codified at N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a), provides that the disqualification “shall not apply to an individual who voluntarily leaves work with one employer to accept from another employer employment which commences not more than seven days after the individual leaves employment with the first employer…” Like in McClain, the application of that language was the crux of the Blake appeal.
The plaintiff in Blake provided her employer, Laurel Healthcare LLC (“Laurel”), with two weeks’ notice that she was accepting a position at Alaris Healthcare (“Alaris”). The position with Alaris fell through two days before she was supposed to start. Laurel refused to place her back in her previous full-time position. The plaintiff applied for unemployment benefits but the application was denied. Both the Tribunal and Board of Review affirmed the denial, with the primary reasoning being that the UCL amendment applies to only an applicant who began work with a new employer.
The panel agreed with the administrative determination below and “respectfully disagree[d]” with its sister panel in McClain. For the McClain panel, the key language of the statute was that regarding accepting work with a new employer. The McClain panel read the amendment’s plain language as not imposing a condition that the applicant “actually commence the new employment within the seven-day period.” The Blake panel, on the other hand, read the plain language to impose such a condition. The Blake panel reasoned that the word “accept” was not the trigger for the amendment’s exception to benefits disqualification. Rather, it seized on the words “which commences” as the proper trigger for the amendment’s application. The Blake panel determined that to accept the plaintiff’s position would be tantamount to inserting language into the amendment to make it apply “whenever an employee resigns to accept employment ‘which was intended to commence’ within seven days.” It refused to insert that language. And the Blake panel—invoking the interpretive canon of avoiding surplusage—also believed that its reading “gives relevancy to the second portion of the Amendment.” In addition, the panel thought that the legislative history, similar statutes from other states, and practical considerations, supported the Board’s determination.
This statutory interpretation issue is ripe for the New Jersey Supreme Court to grant certification. With two Appellate Division panels issuing opposite holdings within a month, similarly-situated applicants for unemployment benefits do not have clear guidance. The Supreme Court should resolve this important dispute, which affects both employers and employees. Or, if the Court declines to do so, then the Legislature may want to consider revising the amendment to clarify its intent.