Collins v. The Unemployment Ins. Appeals Bd., C. A. K21A-10-001 JJC

CourtSuperior Court of Delaware
Writing for the CourtJeffrey J Clark Resident Judge
Docket NumberC. A. K21A-10-001 JJC
Decision Date29 March 2022

ISAIAH COLLINS, Appellant-Claimant,


C. A. No. K21A-10-001 JJC

Superior Court of Delaware

March 29, 2022

Submitted: February 15, 2022

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


Jeffrey J Clark Resident Judge

AND NOW TO WIT, this 29th day of March 2022, upon consideration of the record and the briefing by the parties, IT APPEARS THAT:

1. Appellant Isaiah Collins appeals a decision of the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board (hereinafter "the Board" or "UIAB") issued on September 20, 2021. After the United States Army separated Mr. Collins, he sought unemployment insurance benefits. When doing so, he sought to include the amount of his prior military pay in the calculation. The Division of Unemployment Insurance ("Division") denied his claim. On appeal, the UIAB did also. Mr. Collins now appeals the UIAB's decision.


2. For background purposes, federal statute permits the United States Secretary of Labor to enter agreements with the states to permit designated state agencies to oversee the payment of unemployment benefits to former federal employees.[1] In Delaware, the General Assembly has authorized Delaware's Department of Labor ("DOL") to enter such an agreement with the United States Secretary of Labor.[2]

3. Former military service members, who served on active duty, qualify for benefits under this system.[3] The program specific to former active-duty military members is known as the Unemployment Compensation for Ex-Servicemembers Program ("UCX").[4] Through this mechanism, UCX pays unemployment benefits to qualifying claimants.[5] As the administrator of these benefits in Delaware, DOL's Division of Unemployment Insurance must follow federal law to determine if claimants qualify.[6]

4. Congress has provided the U.S. Department of Labor (the "Department") the authority to prescribe federal rules and regulations that define UCX qualifications and provide guidelines for payment.[7] As a result, the


Department promulgated Part 614 of the Code of Federal Regulations (the "Regulations") to implement the program.[8] In addition, the Department also issues guidance to its state agents through Unemployment Insurance Program Letters ("UIPLs").[9] The Department most recently updated this guidance in UIPL No. 30-20 (hereafter also referred to as the "Letter") on September 24, 2020.[10] It is the Letter that provides the relevant guidance applicable to Mr. Collins' case.

5. To qualify under UCX, a servicemember must be (1) discharged under honorable conditions and (2) complete a full term of active service or meet certain exceptions.[11] Mr. Collins did not complete his first term of enlistment. Because the Army separated him under honorable conditions, however, he may still qualify for UCX benefits if he meets one of several exceptions. Of those exceptions, the relevant one required the Division (or, on appeal, the UIAB) to answer whether the Army separated Mr. Collins for "personality disorders or inaptitude but only if [his] service was continuous for 365 days or more."[12]

6. When an ex-servicemember who applies for UCX benefits submits a claim, he or she must provide the Division information regarding the length of his or her service and the reason for his or her discharge.[13] The relevant information is found on the servicemember's Certificate of Release of Discharge From Active-Duty Form (hereafter "DD-214").

7. Here, Mr. Collins' DD-214 demonstrates that he received a general discharge, under honorable conditions.[14] Accordingly, he meets the first statutory


requirement for UCX benefits.[15] He did not, however, complete his first full-term of enlistment. Notwithstanding his reduced length of service, because he served honorably for greater than 365 days, he qualifies for UCX benefits if the Army separated him because of "personality disorders or inaptitude."

8. The Division, as the Department's agent in Delaware, must look to UIPL No. 30-20 to define what reasons for separation are based upon "personality disorders or inaptitude." The Letter includes a list of acceptable narrative reasons as an attachment; it also creates a decision tree for the Division to follow when processing such claims.

9. The first step in UIPL No. 30-20's decision tree directs the Division to compare, verbatim, the claimant's reason for separation found on his DD-214 to the Letter's list of acceptable reasons.[16] Second, absent a verbatim match, the Letter instructs the Division to qualitatively compare the claimant's DD-214 provided reason to the Letter's list of acceptable reasons. In Mr. Collins' case, the Army's stated reason for separating him does not match one of the listed acceptable reasons verbatim. Accordingly, the Letter instructed the Division to determine whether his DD-214's stated reason for separation "substantially matches" one of the acceptable narrative reasons.[17] If the Division, or the UIAB on appeal, finds a substantial similarity between the written reason and an acceptable reason, then either the Division or the UIAB must contact the Department of the Army for clarification. Had the Division or the UIAB contacted the Department of the Army or the Department of Labor's UCX Regional Office, one of those offices would have confirmed whether Mr. Collins qualifies for benefits.[18]


10. In this case, the record demonstrates that Mr. Collins filed a claim for unemployment benefits after the Army separated him. After a Division level hearing, a claims deputy found that Mr. Collins' service did not meet one of the acceptable reasons for separation listed in 5 U.S.C. § 8521. The claims deputy's written decision cited only the statute and then denied his claim.[19] Mr. Collins then appealed the claims deputy's decision to an appeals referee.[20]

11. The appeals referee denied him benefits, as well. When doing so, she referenced the narrative reasons for separation listed in Mr. Collins' DD-214. She did not explain her reasoning for denying his claim, however. Nor did she reference any effort, taken by the Division or herself, to compare his reason for separation written on his DD-214 to the list of acceptable reasons provided in the Letter. Rather, she stopped her analysis after she recognized that he had not completed his first full term of enlistment.[21] In this regard, she neglected to consider whether 5 U.S.C. § 8521(a)(1)(B)(ii)(IV)'s exception applied. That subdivision required both the Division, and then the appeals referee on appeal, to perform additional steps. Those extra unperformed steps were necessary because Mr. Collins separation was (1) under honorable conditions, and (2) he served in the Army for at least 365 continuous days.

12. After the appeals referee's denial, Mr. Collins appealed the matter to the UIAB. There, the Board declined to consider additional evidence. Instead, it decided the matter based only upon the parties' arguments and the factual record developed before the appeals referee.[22] When the Board issued its decision, it recognized that


Mr. Collins was discharged under honorable conditions.[23] The Board also impliedly acknowledged that he served honorably for greater than 365 days, which in turn required it to perform an analysis beyond that performed by the appeals referee. Namely, the Board performed the Letter's second required step by reviewing the list of acceptable reasons for separation in UIPL No. 30-20. While the Board compared Mr. Collins' DD-214 provided reason for separation to the Letter's list of acceptable separation narratives for a verbatim match, [24] it did not go on to qualitatively compare the two to determine if there was a "substantial" match.[25] Rather, the UIAB summarily denied Mr. Collins' UCX benefits.[26]

13. Thereafter, Mr. Collins appealed the UIAB's decision to the Superior Court. In his appeal, he contends that the UIAB committed legal error by not following UIPL No. 30-20's guidance. More specifically, Mr. Collins contends that his DD-214 narrative reason for separation, "Misconduct/Drug Abuse," is substantially similar to one of the Letter's "acceptable" narrative reasons: "Drug Rehabilitation Failure." He emphasizes that UIPL No. 30-20 required either the UIAB, or the Division, to have compared the two reasons for separation. According to Mr. Collins, if the listed reason for separation on his DD-214 at least substantially matches one of the acceptable reasons, UIPL No. 30-20 requires the UIAB, or its designee upon remand, to contact the Army through the Military-State Data Exchange Service for clarification regarding whether he qualified for UCX benefits.[27]

14. In response, the Division counters that the UIAB decision should be upheld because Mr. Collins' DD-214's reason does not precisely match one of the


acceptable reasons found in UIPL No. 30-20.[28] The Division concedes on appeal, however, that when a narrative reason listed on a DD-214 substantially matches a reason in the Letter's list, "[it] must contact the military to ask if it 'closely enough matches the reasons approved by the military.'"[29] In spite of that recognition, the Division nevertheless contends that the Court should find that there is no substantial match, in the absence of a UIAB finding of fact on the issue.[30] For that reason, the Division contends that neither it nor the Board had to contact the Army through the Military-State Data Exchange Service or perform the Letter's required follow-up inquiry with the Department's UCX Regional Office.[31]

15. On appeal, this Court's review of the UIAB's factual findings is limited to determining whether the Board's decision was supported by substantial evidence and was free from legal error.[32] Substantial evidence means "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to...

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