This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Charles J. Ciali,
Northwest Airlines, Inc.,
Commissioner of Employment and Economic Development,
Filed May 4, 2004
Department of Employment and Economic Development
File No. 2774 03
Charles J. Ciali, 234 North Helena Circle, Palm Springs, CA 92262-6922 (pro se relator)
Timothy R. Thornton, Elizabeth M. Brama, Briggs and Morgan, P.A., 2200 IDS Center, 80 South Eighth Street, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for respondent Northwest Airlines, Inc.)
Lee B. Nelson, M. Kate Chaffee, Department of Employment and Economic Development, 390 Robert Street North, St. Paul, MN 55101 (for respondent Commissioner)
Considered and decided by Willis, Presiding Judge; Schumacher, Judge; and Wright, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
Relator employee argues that the commissioner’s representative improperly determined that he was ineligible to receive benefits because he was (1) on a voluntary leave of absence and (2) not “available for suitable employment.” Because the evidence reasonably supports the commissioner’s representative’s findings, we affirm.
Relator Charles J. Ciali has been employed by Northwest Airlines, Inc. as a flight attendant since 1980. On September 17, 2002, Northwest notified its flight attendants that it was implementing a “Modified Convenience Leave Program” to offset an “excess headcount for the months of November and December.” The program provided that flight attendants could choose to take unpaid leaves of absence for one or two months during the months of November and December. During such a leave, a participant would continue to receive insurance benefits and travel privileges. The September 17, 2002 notification provided that “NOTE: PARTICIPATION IS CONSIDERED VOLUNTARY. THEREFORE, THE COMPANY WILL CONTEST UNEMPLOYMENT CLAIMS.”
Ciali testified that (1) Northwest was going to put an involuntary furlough on some of its flight attendants and that, thus, Northwest offered the leaves to minimize the number of furloughs; (2) as a relatively senior flight attendant, he was not in danger of being furloughed if he declined to take the offered leave; and (3) when he applied for the leave, it was his intention to use some of the time assisting his elderly parents with a cross-country move.
Ciali applied for and received a leave of absence from October 31, 2002, until December 30, 2002, and he sought unemployment benefits for this period. Ciali testified that before he requested the leave of absence from Northwest he telephoned the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (the department) three times in one day concerning his eligibility for unemployment benefits and that three different department employees assured him that he would be eligible for benefits.
The department found Ciali eligible for benefits; Northwest appealed, and an unemployment-law judge reversed. The commissioner’s representative affirmed the unemployment-law judge, concluding that Ciali’s decision to take a leave for personal reasons, despite the availability of work, made him ineligible for unemployment benefits and that Ciali was ineligible for benefits because he “was not looking for work nor was he available for work during the period October 31, 2002, through December 30, 2002.” This appeal follows.
D E C I S I O N
This court reviews the decision of the commissioner’s representative rather than that of the unemployment-law judge. Weaver v. Minn. Valley Labs., 470 N.W.2d 131, 133 (Minn. App. 1991). Appellate review in economic-security cases is narrow. McGowan v. Executive Express Transp. Enters., Inc., 420 N.W.2d 592, 594 (Minn. 1988). The commissioner’s representative’s findings of fact are reviewed in the light most favorable to the decision and are not disturbed if there is evidence in the record that reasonably tends to sustain them. Ress v. Abbott Northwestern Hosp., Inc., 448 N.W.2d 519, 523 (Minn. 1989). Questions of law, however, are reviewed de novo. Id. And statutory construction is a question of law. Edward Kraemer & Sons, Inc. v. Ashbach Constr. Co., 608 N.W.2d 559, 561 (Minn. App. 2000), review denied (Minn. June 13, 2000).
Unemployment benefits “provid[e] workers who are unemployed through no fault of their own a temporary partial wage replacement to assist the unemployed worker to become reemployed.” Minn. Stat. § 268.03, subd. 1 (2002). Minnesota Statutes, section 268.085, subdivision 13a(a) (2002), provides that “[a]n applicant on a voluntary leave of absence shall be ineligible for benefits for the duration of the leave of absence. A leave of absence is voluntary when work that the applicant can then perform is available with the applicant’s employer but the applicant chooses not to work.” Section 268.085, subdivision 1(2), further provides that an applicant is eligible to receive unemployment benefits if he “was able to work and was available for suitable employment, and was actively seeking suitable employment.” The commissioner’s representative determined that Ciali was ineligible for unemployment benefits for the period October 31, 2002, through December 30, 2002, because (1) Ciali was on a voluntary leave of absence and (2) Ciali was not available for work.
Ciali argues that he is entitled to benefits because (1) from October 2001 to December 2002, “[m]ore than a thousand leaves” were granted to Northwest flight attendants and in “all but a few cases” benefits were paid, although he cites no support for this claim, and (2) department employees told him that he would be eligible for benefits. The commissioner asserts that (1) the manner in which the department applied the law before the enactment in 2001 of the “voluntary leave” provision in Minn. Stat. § 268.085, subd. 13a(a), is irrelevant and (2) Ciali’s allegations that department employees told him that he would qualify for benefits, “even if true,” are not a basis for reversing the commissioner’s decision because Minn. Stat. § 268.18, subd. 1 (2002), provides that an individual must promptly repay unemployment benefits to which he was not entitled, even if the benefits were received “because of an error by any employee of the department.” Northwest notes that it is unclear what department employees Ciali spoke with and whether those persons knew of or understood the 2001 change in the law regarding voluntary leaves or had the authority to bind the department.
Ciali further argues that the commissioner’s representative erred in his interpretation and application of Minn. Stat. § 268.085, subd. 13a(a), asserting that the statute only prohibits applicants from receiving unemployment benefits for “truly voluntary absences” because unemployment benefits are intended to “assist employees during times of economic disruption.” Ciali maintains that his absence from employment was not truly voluntary because if he had not taken the leave of absence, a more junior flight attendant would have been furloughed. Thus, he argues, providing benefits to a flight attendant who takes a leave of absence to prevent the furloughing of another flight attendant is consistent with the purpose of the statute, and he is, therefore, entitled to benefits.
Under Minn. Stat. § 268.085, subd. 13a(a), a “leave of absence is voluntary when work that the applicant can then perform is available with the applicant’s employer but the applicant chooses not to work.” Because unambiguous statutory language must be given its plain meaning, we conclude that the commissioner’s representative correctly interpreted the provision to mean that Ciali’s leave was voluntary because his employer had work available that Ciali could have performed had he chosen not to take the leave. Nothing in subdivision 13a(a) supports Ciali’s argument that an employee’s leave is involuntary if it might prevent another employee from being furloughed.
The evidence reasonably supports the commissioner’s representative’s finding that Ciali was on a voluntary leave of absence because (1) Ciali testified that he took the leave of absence for personal reasons, intending to assist his elderly parents in moving cross-country; (2) Ciali testified that because of his seniority, he would not have been among the employees involuntarily furloughed, and nothing in the record suggests that Ciali would not have had work available to him if he continued working; and (3) Northwest notified all flight attendants that it considered leaves under the Modified Convenience Leave Program to be voluntary.
Ciali also challenges the commissioner’s representative’s finding that Ciali was not available for work during his leave of absence. Under Minn. Stat. § 268.085, subd. 15(a), “available for suitable employment” means that an individual is “ready and willing to accept suitable employment in the labor market area” and that individual’s “attachment to the work force must be genuine.” Subdivision 15(c) further provides that an applicant who is absent from the labor market area for personal reasons, other than to search for work, is not “available for suitable employment.” The commissioner’s representative found that Ciali was not available for work because he “took the leave for personal matters and he did not have an attachment to the work force that was genuine during that time frame.” When asked by the unemployment-law judge why he decided to take the leave, Ciali testified, “it was, you know, a leave that I could take for a finite period of time. In my specific case, I mean, I don’t know – personal level here I was dealing with moving elderly parents cross-country.” Ciali’s own testimony, therefore, reasonably supports the commissioner’s representative’s finding that Ciali took the leave for personal reasons and that he was not ready and willing to accept suitable employment and was not genuinely attached to the workforce during his leave.