Conflict Resolved: The Supreme Court Applies the Unemployment Compensation Law in Favor of Benefit Claimants

McClain v. Board of Review, 237 N.J. 445 (2019).  This appeal actually involved two consolidated cases, each of which was the subject of a published opinion in the Appellate Division.  McClain v. Board of Review, 451 N.J. Super. 461 (App. Div. 2017) (discussed here); Blake v. Board of Review, 452 N.J. Super. 7 (App. Div. 2017) (discussed here).  In each case, the claimant for unemployment benefits had accepted an offer from a new employer, resigned from the prior employment, but then saw the new job offer rescinded through no fault of their own.  The issue was whether, on those facts, the claimant could get unemployment benefits.  McClain said yes, but Blake thereafter said no.  The Supreme Court granted review in both cases, in order to resolve this square conflict.

In a unanimous opinion by Justice Albin, the Supreme Court agreed with McClain.  The Court found that the statute at issue, N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a), was ambiguous, such that both Appellate Division panels’ rulings were “plausible interpretations.”  Justice Albin turned to legislative history, but found that it provided “no conclusive answer.”

The cases ultimately came down to “the underlying objective of the Unemployment Compensation Law and the equitable purpose” of N.J.S.A. 43:21-5(a).  The Unemployment Compensation Law, Justice Albin said, citing a prior Supreme Court case, “is social legislation intended to provide financial relief to an employee who is out of work through no fault of her own and “is to be liberally construed in favor of claimants to effectuate its remedial purposes.”  The Court concluded that both plaintiffs “fall within the category of workers the Legislature intended to protect by the amendment.”

The Justices rejected the view of the Blake panel, under which “McClain and Blake could have collected UI benefits if they had commenced their new jobs and were fired the next day, but instead they are disqualified from collecting benefits because their offers were rescinded just days before starting their new jobs.  That absurd result is not one that the Legislature likely envisioned or intended and is completely at odds with the enlightened purposes of the UCL.”  Accordingly, the Court held that both McClain and Blake were entitled to unemployment benefits.  The Court affirmed the ruling in McClain, reversed in Blake, and remanded to the Board of Review for further proceedings.

Despite the provision of Rule 2:12-4 that counts resolution of conflicting Appellate Division decisions as among the grounds for certification by the Supreme Court, it is relatively rare that a conflict between two opinions as direct as it was here arises.  The Court has now put that conflict to rest.