Muhammad v. S.C. Dep't of Emp't & Workforce

Decision Date23 May 2023
Docket Number22-ALJ-22-0255-AP
PartiesMichael Muhammad, Appellant, v. South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce and Rock Hill School District No. 3, Respondent.
CourtSouth Carolina Administrative Law Court Decisions
FINAL ORDER

SHIRLEY C. ROBINSON Administrative Law Judge

STATEMENT OF THE CASE

This matter is before the South Carolina Administrative Law Court (ALC or Court) pursuant to an appeal filed by Michael Muhammad (Appellant). S.C. Code Ann. § 41-35-750 (2021) (providing an appeal from the Panel is to the ALC). Appellant seeks review of the June 22, 2022 final decision issued by the Appellate Panel ("Panel") of the South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce (Department/DEW).[1] The Panel determined that Appellant was indefinitely disqualified from receiving unemployment insurance (UI) benefits because he voluntarily left his employment with Rock Hill School District No. 3 (District/Employer) for personal reasons without good cause attributable to the employment. S.C. Code Ann. §§ 41-35120(1) &-125 (2021). After careful consideration of the Record on Appeal, the parties' briefs, and the applicable law, the Court affirms the Panel's final decision.

BACKGROU ND

On April 25, 2019, Appellant began work as an in-school support facilitator with the Rock Hill School District. On October 26, 2021, Appellant submitted written notice, via electronic communication, to the principal of the school where he was employed, notifying her of Appellant's resignation from his employment. On November 19, 2021, Appellant filed an application for UI benefits with the Department indicating that he quit his employment with the District because of relocation. Later that day, Appellant submitted responses to the Department fact-finding interview. When prompted to explain the reasons for his relocation, Appellant elaborated that "[t]he domestic relationship that [] [he] was in became dangerous and unhealthy for [] [him] to continue to reside and was being affected to degree that [] [he] had to remove [] [himself] from the household." Regarding whether he met with the employer prior to resignation, Appellant stated that, on October 5, 2021, he met with Dr. Valerie Williams and was "advised and encouraged to make the best decision to support [] [his] overall health and safety." On November 30, 2021, the Department mailed a Request for Separation Information to the District to which the District responded indicating that Appellant voluntary resigned due to personal and health related reasons.

On November 30, 2021, the Department issued its initial claim determination holding Appellant ineligible for benefits indefinitely from November 14, 2021, as a result of having left his employment for personal reasons and without good cause under section 41 -3 5-120 of the South Carolina Code (2021). Appellant appealed the Department's denial of UI benefits asserting that his separation was "related to domestic abuse and [] [Appellant's] only recourse was to remove himself from dangerous and harmful environment where he resided and relocate to safe residence."

On December 17, 2021, the Department's Appeal Tribunal (Tribunal) issued a Notice of Hearing informing Appellant and the District that an administrative hearing would be held December 30, 2021, via telephone before a single hearing officer. In the event of scheduling conflicts, the parties were advised that "[h]earing postponements are not ordinarily granted." On December 30, 2021, the Tribunal conducted an administrative hearing by telephone; Appellant participated but the employer was not present. On January 3 2022, the Tribunal's hearing officer affirmed the initial denial of UI benefits, finding Appellant indefinitely disqualified as a result of having voluntarily quit without good cause. On January 10, 2022, Appellant filed an appeal to the Appellate Panel (Panel) arguing that he was denied due process as a result of having not been afforded the opportunity to obtain supporting documentation of the domestic abuse; deprived of the opportunity to confront and cross-examine employer as a result of the District being on winter break; and, that the Tribunal's determination omitted relevant testimony and mischaracterized his individual circumstances. The final Department determination on February 23, 2022, vacated the January 3, 2022 determination and remanded the matter back to the Tribunal with instruction for a new full evidentiary' hearing and determination on the matter.

On March 29, 2022, the Tribunal notified the parties that an administrative hearing would be held on April 11, 2022, via telephone before a single hearing officer. The Notice informed the parties of the right to present relevant testimony, witnesses, and documentary evidence before the hearing officer, and that each could request the Department to issue a subpoena to obtain evidence essential to its case. On April 11, 2022, a hearing officer for the Tribunal conducted an administrative hearing by telephone. Appellant and Employer each participated, with neither represented by an attorney nor presenting any witnesses. On April 12,2022, the Tribunal's hearing officer affirmed the initial claims adjudicator's determination finding Appellant ineligible for UI benefits because he voluntarily quit for personal reasons not attributable to the employer and without good cause. The Tribunal determination was founded upon evidence that Appellant had relocated due to personal circumstances and a lack of confidence in his employer. The Tribunal reasoned that the documentation submitted by Appellant was dated three months subsequent to his resignation and was devoid of specific details of the nature of the domestic situation. The Tribunal further concluded that Appellant had not provided documentation to the District regarding the details of his separation; that Appellant's extended leave of absence was not submitted through appropriate channels; that Appellant did not address concerns with the District regarding his lack of confidence immediately prior to his resignation nor had Appellant provided the District an opportunity to remediate the issue. The Tribunal observed that Appellant's work was still available at the time of his resignation and, in turn concluded that the Appellant had not exhausted all reasonable efforts to remain employed. Finally, the Tribunal found insufficient evidence to substantiate that Appellant separation from employment was due to compelling family circumstances.

On April 21, 2022, Appellant appealed the Tribunal's determination to the Panel, with a subsequent request for oral arguments made. On June 8,2022, the Panel issued a Notice of Hearing informing the parties that oral arguments would be held at the Department's Columbia location. The Notice further informed the parties that the hearing was limited to the record developed by the Tribunal, that no new evidence was admissible, and that in the absence of an emergency, the hearing would not be postponed. On June 16, 2022, the Panel sent notice to the parties that Appellant's request for a postponement had been received and that the request was denied. On June 21, 2022, Appellant submitted a written statement of arguments to the Panel wherein he asserted that not only were the Tribunal's findings of facts flawed but that he was deprived of his due process rights during the December 30, 2021,[2] March 28, 2022,[3] and April 11,2022 hearings.

The following day, the Panel issued the final Department determination, affirming the Tribunal's determination that Appellant was not qualified for UI benefits, effective indefinitely from November 14, 2021. In reaching its determination, the Panel reasoned that the record reflected that Appellant voluntarily quit his employment as a result of having lost confidence in the District and personal circumstances. Regarding his lack of confidence in the District, the Panel acknowledged that Appellant expressed his concerns to the District but concluded that Appellant did not elevate his concerns beyond the school administer nor afford the District an adequate opportunity to remediate the issue. The Panel further found that while Appellant possessed a "strong desire" to relocate, Appellant had failed to provide sufficient credible evidence that he was a victim of domestic abuse or that it was reasonable for him to believe that separation from employment was necessary for his safety or that of his family. The Panel concluded that Appellant's voluntarily left employment for personal reasons without good cause attributable to the employment.

The Panel further found that the hearing officer for the Tribunal had provided Appellant a full and fair opportunity to present his case and that the hearing was conducted with impartiality. The Panel concluded that there was no error in the administration of Appellant's case. For the foregoing reasons, the Panel found Appellant indefinitely ineligible for UI benefits, effective November 14, 2021.

ISSUES[4]

1. Has appellant been denied/deprived of due process and or substantial right by respondent SCDEW?

2. Are substantial rights of appellant prejudiced because of administrative findings, administrative inferences, administrative conclusions and or administrative decisions.

3. Does appellant's meet burden that his work ended because appellant voluntarily left work because of compelling family circumstances directly related to domestic abuse where appellant resided, whereas appellant had to relocate to save his own life and be safe from injury, harm, and mortal danger.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The Department is an agency under the Administrative Procedures Act (APA). See Gibson v. Florence Country Club, 282 S.C. 384, 386, 318 S.E.2d 365, 367 (1984) (finding the ...

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