This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Commissioner of Economic Security,
Commissioner of Economic Security
File No. 721602
Peter B. Knapp, Susan M. Blodgett (certified student attorney), William Mitchell Law Clinic, 875 Summit Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55105 (for relator)
J-Mont, Inc., Downtowner Car Wash, 520 Seventh Street East, St. Paul, MN 55101-2400 (respondent employer)
Lee B. Nelson, M. Kate Chaffee, Department of Economic Security, 390 North Robert Street, St. Paul, MN 55101 (for respondent Commissioner Economic Security)
Considered and decided by Minge, Presiding Judge, Hudson, Judge, and Forsberg, Judge.*
Relator challenges the denial of unemployment benefits by the commissioner’s representative arguing that (1) she did not exercise a free-will choice in quitting her employment; and (2) the commissioner’s representative improperly relied on letters that were not part of the record. We affirm.
Relator Cecelia Davis worked as a car detailer for respondent J-Mont, Inc. from mid-1999 to February 28, 2002. On February 27, 2002, relator left work without notifying her supervisor and before finishing her tasks for the day. When she returned to work on February 28, 2002, her manager informed her that she was suspended for one week without pay.
After being informed of her suspension, relator went to the office of the company president. According to the company president, relator demanded her paycheck and told him that she could not take anymore of the manager’s “crap.” The president testified that he asked relator if she was quitting, that relator replied that she was quitting, and that she wanted her paycheck. Relator admitted that she was angry when she spoke with the company president, but she denied ever saying that she was quitting her job. Both relator and the company president testified that several other employees witnessed this exchange.
The president hired another worker to fill relator’s position. Relator called the president about one week after she left the company and asked if she could come back to work. The president informed her that her position had already been filled. According to relator, the purpose of the phone call was to see if her suspension was over. Relator testified that when she called the company president, he told her that he thought she had quit.
Relator applied for unemployment insurance benefits. An adjudicator for the Department of Economic Security determined that relator quit her employment without a good reason caused by her employer and that relator was therefore disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits. Relator appealed and a hearing was held before an unemployment law judge (ULJ). The ULJ determined that relator did not quit her employment and that relator was discharged from her employment for a reason other than employment misconduct. The ULJ concluded that relator was therefore entitled to unemployment benefits. J-Mont appealed the ULJ’s decision, and the commissioner’s representative determined that relator had in fact quit her employment without a good reason caused by the employer. The commissioner’s representative therefore concluded that relator is disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits.
On appeal, this court must examine the decision of the commissioner’s representative, rather than that of the unemployment law judge. Kalberg v. Park & Recreation Bd., 563 N.W.2d 275, 276 (Minn. App. 1997). Decisions of the commissioner’s representative are afforded particular deference. Tuff v. Knitcraft Corp., 526 N.W.2d 50, 51 (Minn. 1995). The commissioner’s representative’s factual findings are viewed in the light most favorable to the decision and are not disturbed if evidence in the record reasonably tends to sustain them. Lolling v. Midwest Patrol, 545 N.W.2d 372, 377 (Minn. 1996). Although this court defers to the commissioner’s findings of fact if they are reasonably supported by the evidence in the record, this court exercises its independent judgment with respect to questions of law. Ress v. Abbott Northwestern Hosp., Inc., 448 N.W.2d 519, 523 (Minn. 1989). “Whether an employee has been discharged or voluntarily quit is a question of fact,” and not law. Midland Elec., Inc. v. Johnson, 372 N.W.2d 810, 812 (Minn. App. 1985) (citations omitted).
“Minnesota unemployment compensation laws are remedial in nature” and should be liberally construed. Wood v. Menard, Inc., 490 N.W.2d 441, 443 (Minn. App. 1992). “The legislature intended to assist those who are unemployed through no fault of their own.” Id. Thus, “[d]isqualification provisions are narrowly construed.” Id.
We first address whether relator exercised a free-will choice in quitting her employment. An employee who quits without good reason caused by the employer is disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits. Minn. Stat. § 268.095, subd. 2(a) (2002). That statute defines quit as “when the decision to end the employment was, at the time the employment ended, the employee’s.” Id. This court has concluded that
[t]he test for determining whether an employee has voluntarily quit is whether the employee directly or indirectly exercises a free-will choice to leave the employment.
Shanahan v. Dist. Mem’l Hosp., 495 N.W.2d 894, 896 (Minn. App. 1993). The statute and the Shanahan case stand for the same proposition. An employee voluntarily leaves employment and is disqualified from receiving benefits when the employee “exercises a free-will choice to leave the employment.” Shanahan, 495 N.W.2d at 896.
Relator argues that her quitting was not a free-will choice or, in other words, that quitting was not actually her decision. Relator’s argument is not persuasive for two reasons. First, the commissioner’s representative specifically found that relator replied in the affirmative when she was asked if she was quitting her job. That fact supports the conclusion that the decision to terminate employment was her decision. Second, to support her argument, relator relies on statements made and actions taken after she was no longer employed with J-Mont Inc. But the statute says a quit has occurred “when the decision to end the employment was, at the time the employment ended, the employee’s.” Minn. Stat. § 268.095, subd. 2(a) (emphasis added). The statute is concerned with the events “at the time the employment ended,” not with events after the employment ended. Id. Thus, relator’s statements and actions after her employment ended are not indicative of whether the decision to terminate employment was actually her decision.
Relator wants this court to adopt a subjective standard so that the determination of whether an employee quit is dependent on what the employee intended to do at the time and not on the outward manifestations of the employee’s intent. But adopting such a standard is at variance with general application of legal principles to the objectively observed conduct of parties, is not justified by the statute in question, and would unfairly handicap the unemployment insurance process. When an employee says that he or she quits and takes actions consistent with quitting, an employer must be able to rely on those words and actions so that the employer can replace the employee and carry on with business. Adopting a subjective standard would allow employees who quit to circumvent the unemployment benefits statute simply by saying they did not mean to quit, despite their contrary words and actions. This would lead to inconsistent results in unemployment benefit cases and would facilitate exploitation of the unemployment benefits program.
Next we address whether the commissioner’s representative relied on evidence outside the record. Minnesota law prohibits the commissioner from considering evidence that was not submitted at the hearing before the ULJ. Minn. Stat. § 268.105, subd. 2(d) (2002). Here, relator contends that the commissioner’s representative relied on two letters that the ULJ found were inadmissible hearsay. The commissioner’s representative referred to the letters and apparently thought they should have been admitted into evidence. But the commissioner’s representative went on to say:
While a situation such as this may warrant that this case be remanded for the sole purposes of admitting the corroborating letters into evidence, the available evidence on the record is sufficient to find for the employer in this case.
A review of the record establishes that the commissioner’s representative is correct. Relator and the company president testified that several other people witnessed the exchange. We conclude that the commissioner’s representative did not actually consider the letters so as to violate Minn. Stat. § 268.105, subd. 2(d).
* Retired judge of the district court, serving as judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.