West Jordan v. Morrison, 17786

Citation656 P.2d 445
Decision Date08 November 1982
Docket NumberNo. 17786,17786
PartiesWEST JORDAN, a municipal corporation, Plaintiff, v. C. Brian MORRISON, and Board of Review of the Department of Employment Security, Industrial Commission, Defendants.
CourtUtah Supreme Court

Stephen G. Homer, West Jordan, for plaintiff.

David L. Wilkinson, Atty. Gen., Floyd G. Astin, Asst. Atty. Gen., K. Allan Zabel, M. Dirk Eastmond, Salt Lake City, for defendants.

DURHAM, Justice:

This case is an appeal by the City of West Jordan (the employer) from a decision by the Board of Review of the Industrial Commission of Utah (the Board) which affirmed an award of unemployment compensation benefits to C. Brian Morrison (the claimant).

On November 26, 1980, the claimant submitted a letter to the employer which included the following:


I am writing this letter in protest to express my severe feelings of disappointment and unfairness as a result of the decision made in choosing the new shop leadworker.

* * *

* * *

Up until now I've been happy and quite satisfied with my employment with the City and hoped to work it through to retirement ....

There are more reasons I would be willing to discuss verbally as I don't wish to create hostilities, or blemish the character of any of my co-workers. As it stands, the dicision [sic] for not accepting me to the position I feel is extreemly [sic] unfair, and if it is maintained, then please accept this as my letter of resignation and advance notice that my last day will be December 10, 1980.

Upon receiving the letter, the employer immediately accepted the claimant's resignation, making it effective as of the date of the letter. The claimant was not allowed to continue to work through the following two weeks to the date of his resignation.

In January, 1981, the claimant applied for unemployment compensation benefits and was declared eligible as of January 11 to receive $134 per week for 34 weeks, for a total of $4,556. As a nonprofit organization, the employer has elected under U.C.A., 1953, Sec. 35-4-7.5, to make reimbursement payments for benefits paid by the State Department of Employment Security in lieu of making regular contributions to the unemployment compensation fund. Thus, the employer appealed the eligibility decision to an Appeal Referee and then to the Board of Review, both of which affirmed the finding of eligibility. In this appeal, the employer again argues that an employee who voluntarily resigns with two weeks' notice is not entitled to unemployment compensation benefits beginning six weeks later merely because he was not allowed to work for the two-week period.

The resolution of this issue turns on our reading of U.C.A., 1953, Sec. 35-4-5(a), (1981 Supp.), which states in part:

An individual shall be ineligible for benefits or for purposes of establishing a waiting period:

Voluntarily Leaving Work.

(a) For the week in which the claimant left work voluntarily without good cause, if so found by the commission, and for each week thereafter until the claimant has performed services in bona fide covered employment and earned wages for such services equal to at least six times the claimant's weekly benefit amount; provided, that no claimant shall be ineligible for benefits if the claimant leaves work under circumstances of such a nature that it would be contrary to equity and good conscience to impose a disqualification.

The commission shall in cooperation with the employer consider for the purposes of this act, the reasonableness of the claimant's actions, and the extent to which the actions evidence a genuine continuing attachment to the labor market in reaching a determination of whether the ineligibility of a claimant is contrary to equity and good conscience.

The employer emphasizes that the real issue in this case is the question of the claimant's eligibility for the period beginning January 11, and that the period between November 26 and December 10 is irrelevant to that determination. The employer asserts that because the claimant would have left work voluntarily on December 10 anyway, his eligibility a month later should not be affected by the employer's decision to make the resignation effective immediately. The employer urges an interpretation of Sec. 35-4-5(a) which would state, in effect, "An individual shall be ineligible for benefits ... for [any ] week in which the claimant left work voluntarily without good cause ... and for each week thereafter ...." Id. (Emphasis added.) In other words, the employer would have us consider the week in which the claimant offered to resign without regard for the week in which he actually left work.

We have frequently stated that this Court's primary responsibility in construing legislative enactments is to give effect to the Legislature's underlying intent. See, e.g., Millett v. Clark Clinic Corp., Utah, 609 P.2d 934 (1980). We have also said that a statute should be applied according to its literal wording unless it is unreasonably confused or inoperable. See Gord v. Salt Lake City, 20 Utah 2d 138, 434 P.2d 449 (1967). We must assume that each term in the statute was used advisedly by the Legislature and that each should be interpreted and applied according to its usually accepted meaning. Where the ordinary meaning of the terms results in an application that is neither unreasonably confused, inoperable, nor in blatant contradiction to the express purpose of the statute, it is not the duty of this Court to assess the wisdom of the statutory scheme. See, e.g., Knox v. Thomas, 30 Utah 2d 15, 512 P.2d 664 (1973); Gord, supra.

With these principles in mind, we hold that the ordinary meaning of the terms does not support the interpretation advanced by the employer. It is clear that the purpose of Sec. 35-4-5 is to set out various conditions under which a claimant is ineligible for benefits. One of these conditions is the voluntary departure from employment without good cause. By its wording, the statute directs our attention to the week in which the claimant left work--not the week that he might have left work, or offered to leave work, but the week in which the claimant actually left work. There is no question that the claimant left work the week of November 26, 1979, and that his leaving that week was not voluntary. In its decision, the Board affirmed the claimant's eligibility "on the grounds the claimant was discharged from his employment with the City of West Jordan but not for actions ... which are disqualifying ...." The Board went on to state:

In cases such as this, a policy that looks to the immediate cause of the claimant's unemployment is consistent with the intent and purpose of the Employment Security Act .... [I]t was the employer's decision to terminate the claimant rather than accept his nature of resignation, which has led to the result now faced by the employer.

The employer argues that this interpretation brings about a result unintended by the Legislature by awarding benefits to one who intended to leave work voluntarily, and that at most, the claimant should receive benefits for just the two-week period he was unemployed before the effective date of his resignation. It is true that the amount of unemployment compensation, over $4,000, seems disproportionate to the amount of time during which the claimant was involuntarily unemployed. Nevertheless, the language of the statute is unambiguous: the week in which the claimant actually leaves work is the determinative factor regarding subsequent eligibility. The Industrial Commission's General Rules of Adjudication 135.4 states that "[w]hen a worker submits his/her resignation to be effective at some definite future date, but is discharged prior thereto, the leaving is usually not considered voluntary." The rules adopted by an administrative agency are not binding on the courts and an "administrative interpretation out of harmony and contrary to the express provisions of a statute cannot be given weight." Utah Hotel Co. v. Industrial Commission, 107 Utah 24, 32, 151 P.2d 467, 471 (1944). However, the rules promulgated by an agency are entitled to deference where they are made pursuant to legislatively delegated authority and are not contrary to the provisions of the statute. In the instant case, Rule 135.4 appears to comport with the plain meaning of Sec. 35-4-5 as we have interpreted it. Furthermore, we stated in Continental Oil Co. v. Board of Review of Industrial Commission, Utah, 568 P.2d 727 (1977):

[A] statute for a forfeiture should be strictly construed, and an ambiguous or doubtful term should be given a construction which is least likely to work a forfeiture. The penal character of the provision should be minimized by excluding, rather than including, conduct not clearly intended to be within the provision.

Id. at 730.

The facts of this case are undisputed. The Board applied the statute according to the ordinary meaning of its terms. Our role is to sustain the determination of the Board unless the record clearly proves the action of the Board was arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable. Continental Oil, supra. We have held that the ordinary meaning of the statute supports the decision made by the Board. If this interpretation brings about a result contrary to the intention of the Legislature, it is a matter for the Legislature to remedy. This Court may not do so. The decision of the Board is therefore affirmed. No costs awarded.

STEWART, OAKS and HOWE, JJ., concur.

HALL, Chief Justice (dissenting):

I do not join the Court's opinion because I view the claimant's letter to his employer as a voluntary resignation without good cause. As such, the letter rendered the claimant ineligible for statutory unemployment benefits.

The primary issue in this case was appropriately identified by the claimant as follows:

When an employee submits a letter of resignation to be effective at some future date and the employer terminates the employment relationship...

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