Thompson v. Christiana Care Health Sys., 104, 2010

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Delaware
Writing for the CourtSTEELE
Docket NumberNo. 104, 2010,C.A. No. 08A-08-001,104, 2010
Decision Date12 August 2011


No. 104, 2010
C.A. No. 08A-08-001


Submitted: May 18, 2011
Decided: August 12, 2011

Court Below: Superior Court of the State of Delaware in and for New Castle County

Before STEELE, Chief Justice, HOLLAND and JACOBS, Justices.

Upon appeal from the Superior Court. AFFIMRED.

Jeffrey K. Martin, Martin & Associates, P.A., Wilmington, Delaware for appellant.

David H. Williams, James H. McMackin, III and Allyson M. Britton (argued), Morris James LLP, Wilmington, Delaware for appellee.

STEELE, Chief Justice:

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Linda Thompson appeals from a Superior Court judgment reversing the determination of the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board that good cause existed for Thompson's voluntary resignation and granting her unemployment benefits. Thompson contends that: (1) good cause existed for voluntarily terminating her employment, (2) she exhausted her administrative remedies, and (3) substantial evidence in the record supported the UIAB's decision. Because we find that substantial evidence did not support the UIAB's decision and that the UIAB erred as a matter of law by concluding that Thompson was entitled to benefits pursuant to 19 Del. C. § 3314(1)1 , we AFFIRM the judgment of the Superior Court.

Factual and Procedural Background

From September 2002 to February 2008, Thompson worked as an administrative assistant for Howard Wellness Center which is a medical facility operated by Christiana Care Health System. Thompson testified that from 2006 to 2008, her working environment was "very disruptive," involving power struggles and repeated employee disagreements. Specifically, Thompson claims that she got

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into several disagreements with her supervisor, Leighanne Hollans. Thompson testified that after returning from an internal transfer interview that Hollans accused Thompson of not being a team player and of abandoning her. Because of the stressful work environment, Thompson explained, her "health was in jeopardy. I'd come in everyday, upset, leave upset because these grown up people were not being professional."2

The Center's employee relations representative testified that Thompson could have reported her grievances "up her chain of command," and that "[s]he could at any point contact human resources and employee relations" about her employment issues. Thompson did not follow either of those procedures. Three or four months before she resigned, Thompson contacted a recruiter in Human Resources, rather than an Employee Relations representative, and complained to the recruiter about the disruptive work environment.

Thompson also contacted Kathy Cannatelli, the Center's manager who oversaw Hollans, but did not contact anyone above Cannatelli in the Center's "chain of command." Thompson testified that employees were told that, "we could not go any further than Kathy Cannatelli because [Cannatelli's superior] would not listen to what we would say. She would tell us you handle that with

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Kathy Cannatelli, that's her job."3 On January 25, 2008, Thompson called Cannatelli to discuss issues regarding Thompson's coordinator, but Cannatelli was in a meeting and unavailable and advised Thompson to try to work it out with the coordinator.

On January 29, 2008, Thompson met with Cannatelli to discuss Thompson's dissatisfaction with her current position. Thompson requested a transfer out of the Center and if a transfer were not possible, she would resign. Cannatelli responded that a transfer was not available at that time. After her meeting with Thompson, Cannatelli contacted Michelle Eklund who managed employee relations for Christiana Care's Wellness Centers. Eklund denied any prior knowledge of Thompson's complaints regarding her employment; however, Cannatelli and Eklund began the process of reviewing Thompson's complaints.

On February 1, 2008, Thompson submitted her letter of resignation. On March 2, 2008, Thompson applied for unemployment benefits. On March 18, 2008, the Claims Deputy determined that Thompson had voluntarily quit without good cause, thereby disqualifying her from receiving unemployment benefits. On March 24, 2008, Thompson appealed the decision of the Claims Deputy to the Appeals Referee. Following a hearing, the Appeals Referee affirmed the Claims Deputy's decision. On May 13, 2008, Thompson appealed to the UIAB. After a

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hearing, on July 16, 2008 the UIAB reversed the Appeals Referee and found that Thompson had voluntarily terminated her employment for "good cause" entitling her to unemployment benefits. CCHS appealed the UIAB's decision, which the Superior Court reversed on February 8, 2010. The Superior Court reasoned that "unhappiness arising out of an unpleasant work environment does not constitute 'good cause' for purposes of 19 Del. C. § 3314(1)."4 The Superior Court also found that the record lacked substantial evidence to support the UIAB's conclusion that Thompson resigned her employment for good cause. Additionally, the Superior Court held that Thompson did not exhaust administrative remedies before resigning. This appeal followed.

Claims on Appeal

On appeal, Thompson advances three assignments of error: (1) she voluntarily terminated her employment for good cause, (2) she exhausted her administrative remedies before voluntarily terminating her employment, and (3) the Superior Court incorrectly held that the record lacked substantial evidence supporting the UIAB's decision.

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Standard of Review

Upon review of the Superior Court's reversal of a UIAB decision our function "is limited to a determination of whether there was substantial evidence sufficient to support the [UIAB's] findings[,]"5 and whether they are free from legal error.6 Because we, like the Superior Court, consider the record in the light most favorable for the party prevailing on the UIAB appeal, the facts are viewed in the light most favorable to Thompson.7 "The appellate court does not weigh the evidence, determine questions of credibility, or make its own factual findings."8 It is within the exclusive purview of the [UIAB] to judge witness credibility and resolve conflicts in testimony.9

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Thompson contends that she voluntarily terminated her employment for good cause, and thus is entitled to unemployment benefits. Specifically, Thompson claims that the problematic nature of her work environment, especially the excessive turnover, unprofessional conduct and inability to transfer, created a chaotic atmosphere which justified her voluntarily terminating her employment.

Under 19 Del. C. § 3314(1), an individual cannot qualify for unemployment benefits where that individual leaves work voluntarily without good cause attributable to such work . . . ."10 The Superior Court has defined "good cause" as "such cause as would justify one in voluntarily leaving the ranks of the employed and joining the ranks of the unemployed . . . [A]n employee does not have good cause to quit merely because there is an undesirable or unsafe situation connected with his employment. He must do something akin to exhausting his administrative remedies . . . ."11

This Court has not previously defined good cause in the context of unemployment compensation. The Federal Unemployment Tax Act bars unemployment benefits if an employee voluntarily leaves work without good

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cause.12 After analyzing cases from other jurisdictions, we conclude that Delaware needs a more contextually appropriate definition of good cause.13 In this context, good cause is established where: (i) an employee voluntarily leaves employment for reasons attributable to issues within the employer's control and under circumstances in which no reasonably prudent employee would have remained employed; and (ii) the employee first exhausts all reasonable alternatives to resolve the issues before voluntarily terminating his or her employment.

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The UIAB found that, "[a]lthough it does not appear that [Thompson] was the focus of [] hostility, she did work around or among fellow workers who did not get along, and she was faced with a turnover of co-workers, whereas she could...

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