This opinion will be unpublished and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

A03-988
A03-1326

A03-1488

 

Jamal Hussein,

Relator (A03-988),

 

Abdul M. Ahmed,

Relator (A03-1326),

 

Abdifatah M. Abdi,

Relator (A03-1488),

 

vs.

 

Cypress Semi-Conductor (Minnesota), Inc.,

Respondent,

 

Commissioner of Employment

and Economic Development,

Respondent.

 

Filed June 15, 2004

Reversed
Klaphake, Judge

 

Department of Employment and Economic Development

File Nos. 3969 03, 2650 03, 3603 03

 

Kevin Reuther, Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis, 2929 Fourth Avenue South, Suite 201, Minneapolis, MN  55408 (for relators)

 

Marko J. Mrkonich, Sandro M. Garofalo, Littler Mendelson, P.C., 33 South Sixth Street, Suite 3110, Minneapolis, MN  55402-3716 (for respondent Cypress Semi-Conductor)

 

Lee B. Nelson, Linda A. Holmes, Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, 390 Robert Street North, St. Paul, MN 55101 (for respondent Commissioner)

 

            Considered and decided by Klaphake, Presiding Judge, Stoneburner, Judge, and Forsberg, Judge.*

U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N

KLAPHAKE, Judge

            In these consolidated certiorari appeals, relators Jamal Hussein, Abdul M. Ahmed, and Abdifatah M. Abdi challenge decisions by representatives of the respondent Commissioner of Employment and Economic Development denying their claims for unemployment benefits.  Relators’ employment ended after their employer, respondent Cypress Semi-Conductor (Minnesota), Inc., initiated a voluntary workforce reduction program due to a downturn in business.  Relators submitted applications to be considered for that program, and Cypress accepted their applications.

            In denying relators’ claims for unemployment benefits, the commissioner’s representatives concluded that relators quit their employment and were therefore disqualified from receiving benefits.  Because Cypress made the final decision to end relators’ employment, relators did not quit.  We therefore reverse the decisions by the commissioner’s representatives disqualifying relators from receiving benefits.

FACTS

            Relators worked for Cypress at its manufacturing facility in Bloomington, Minnesota.  Hussein worked as a test technician, Ahmed worked as a special operations operator, and Abdi worked as a semi-fabrication technician.

            Due to an economic downturn, Cypress initiated a voluntary workforce reduction program.  On October 25, 2002, an e-mail was sent to all employees by Cypress’s human resources manager explaining that Cypress was “currently taking action to align expenses and staffing with production levels and company financial goals,” that “[w]orkforce reductions are part of this plan,” and that “[s]ome have already taken place, and more are needed to meet our goals.”  The e-mail offered employees a severance package and full benefits and pay through December 31, 2002, along with benefits for an additional six months and other incentives.  The e-mail required interested employees to submit an application for the program in order to be considered and further explained that Cypress would “accept or decline applications.”  The e-mail warned that “some workforce reductions will be voluntary as a result of this opportunity [but that] others may involve employees who have not volunteered.”  The e-mail stated that “[i]f your application is accepted, you will be notified by 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, October 30th.  If you are not notified by then, your application has not been accepted.”

            Each relator filled out and submitted an “Application to Volunteer for Reduction in Force.”  Each application stated:  “This is to signify my intent to voluntarily be included in the Reduction in Force.”  Each relator understood that Cypress would make the final decision regarding whether his application would be accepted for the program.  One Cypress representative testified that

[someone from human resources] would go and talk to the supervisor to determine what the current departmental need would be, and then the supervisor would consult with their manager to decide if it was okay to lose somebody in that area and, if so, the expected date that it would be okay to lose someone.

 

Cypress informed applicants of their last day of work.

            Approximately 20 out of more than 200 employees working in the same job classifications as relators chose to apply for the program.  Among those 20 applications, all were accepted and none were refused by Cypress.  Cypress claims that relators could have rescinded their applications at any time until they were accepted by Cypress.

D E C I S I O N

            On review of an unemployment benefits case, this court must determine whether the record reasonably supports the decision of the commissioner’s representative.  Tuff v. Knitcraft, 526 N.W.2d 50, 51 (Minn. 1995).  We view the findings of the commissioner’s representative in the light most favorable to the decision and “[we] will not disturb them as long as there is evidence that reasonably tends to sustain those findings.”  Schmidgall v. FilmTec Corp., 644 N.W.2d 801, 804 (Minn. 2002).

            Generally, the question of whether an employee quit or was discharged is a question of fact.  Souder v. Ziegler, 424 N.W.2d 834, 835 (Minn. App. 1988); Midland Elec., Inc. v. Johnson, 372 N.W.2d 810, 812 (Minn. App. 1985).  But we need not defer to the commissioner on an issue of law involving the construction of a statutory definition.  See Houston v. Int’l Data Transfer Corp., 645 N.W.2d 144, 149 (Minn. 2002) (reversing commissioner’s determination that employee’s actions amounted to misconduct under 2002 statutory definition).  Nor need we accept the commissioner’s ultimate determination that an employee is disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits, which is a question of law reviewed de novo by this court.  See Ress v. Abbott Northwestern Hosp., Inc., 448 N.W.2d 519, 523 (Minn. 1989); see also Colburn v. Pine Portage Madden Bros., 346 N.W.2d 159, 161 (Minn. 1984) (stating that reviewing court will affirm if findings are supported by evidence and if “the conclusion on those facts is not contrary to the statutory mandate”).

            Here, the commissioner’s representatives determined that relators were disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits because they quit their employment.  Minn. Stat. § 268.095, subd. 1 (2002) provides that “[a]n applicant who quit employment shall be disqualified from all unemployment benefits.”  A “quit” is defined as occurring “when the decision to end the employment was, at the time the employment ended, the employee’s.”  Minn. Stat. § 268.095, subd. 2(a) (2002).

            As relators argue, this statutory definition of “quit” requires examination of (1) when the employment ended, and (2) who made the final decision to end the employment.  See id.  Relators are convincing in their argument that their employment ended not when they submitted their applications for the voluntary workforce reduction program, but when Cypress accepted their applications; at that point, relators could no longer change their minds or rescind the applications.  The e-mail announcing the program clearly stated that Cypress could either accept or reject an application, and the testimony of Cypress representatives at the hearings confirmed that the final decision whether to accept an application was made by Cypress.  Given these undisputed facts, we conclude that the commissioner’s representative erred in determining that relators “quit” their employment merely because they chose to apply for the workforce reduction program.

            Our decision and construction of the statutory definition of quit is consistent with the statutory unemployment scheme.  If relators did not quit, they were “discharged,” which is defined as occurring “when any words or actions by an employer would lead a reasonable employee to believe that the employer will no longer allow the employee to work for the employer in any capacity.”  Minn. Stat. § 268.095, subd. 5 (2002).  This statute further states that “[a] layoff due to lack of work shall be considered a discharge.”  Id.  A layoff may, as here, include the right to receive a severance package, which is considered to be wages and is deducted from unemployment benefits.  Minn. Stat. § 268.085, subd. 3 (2002).

            Although Cypress did not characterize its workforce reduction program as involving layoffs, relators were arguably laid off due to a lack of work.[1]  The fact that Cypress did not specifically identify their jobs as necessary for elimination or specify the numbers of layoffs necessary to reach the goals of its workforce reduction program is irrelevant.  Although relators facilitated Cypress’s layoff decisions by identifying themselves as potential candidates for layoff and applying for the program, Cypress initiated this program in order to reduce its workforce due to an economic downturn and retained the ultimate authority to decide whether any particular employee would be laid off.

            Cases from other jurisdictions also provide support for our decision here.  These cases tend to find in favor of employees who volunteer for job elimination if the first and last steps leading to termination are within the employer’s control.  See, e.g., Nielsen v. Employment Sec. Dep’t, 966 P.2d 399, 408 (Wash. App. 1998) (holding that employees who participate in voluntary reduction in force program did not leave work voluntarily); Ford Motor Co. v. Ohio Bureau of Employment Servs., 571 N.E.2d 727, 730 (Ohio 1991) (holding that employee who elects voluntary termination under plan adopted by employer to reduce number of employees due to lack of work did not voluntarily quit and was entitled to unemployment compensation); Morillo v. Dir. of Div. Of Employment Sec., 477 N.E.2d 412, 413 (Mass. 1985) (holding that employee, who agreed to be one of those laid off after employer announced decision to lay off specified number of employees, did not “voluntarily” leave work because first and last step in termination process was taken by employer); Mo. Div. of Employment Sec. v. Labor & Indus. Relations Comm’n, 651 S.W.2d 145, 147 (Mo. 1983) (“It should not matter which of several employees are sacrificed, nor does it matter that a claimant participated in the decision.  The ultimate choice belonged to the employer, and the ultimate responsibility for the unemployment of each of these claimants lies only with the employer’s decision to reduce available jobs.”).  Because the first and last steps taken here were initiated and controlled by Cypress, relators’ applications for the program should not be construed as decisions to quit employment.

            Finally, we agree with relators that acceptance of their construction of the statutory definition of “quit” is consistent with the remedial purposes of the unemployment statutes.  The supreme court has made it clear that we may examine whether a particular reading or construction of the disqualification provisions is “consistent with the remedial nature of unemployment compensation and the declared public policy that unemployment benefits are for those who are ‘unemployed through no fault of their own.’”  Houston, 645 N.W.2d at 150 (quoting Minn. Stat. § 268.03, subd. 1 (2000)).  Here, relators are unemployed due to Cypress’s decision to initiate a workforce reduction program and to accept relators’ applications.  Relators are not unemployed merely because they made Cypress’s decisions easier by choosing to apply for that program.

            We therefore reverse the decisions by the commissioner’s representatives disqualifying relators from receiving benefits.

            Reversed.

 



* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.

[1]  Recently, this court has decided several cases involving voluntary leave of absence programs initiated by Northwest Airlines.  See, e.g., Ciali v. Northwest Airlines, A03-1091 (Minn. App. May 4, 2004); McClure v. Northwest Airlines, A03-1261 (Minn. App. Apr. 6, 2004); DuShane v. Northwest Airlines, A03-1252 (Minn. App. Mar. 16, 2004).  These cases involve the issue of whether the employee was on a voluntary leave of absence and thus ineligible to receive benefits under Minn. Stat. § 268.085, subd. 13a(a) (2002) (“An 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.”).  These cases illustrate the distinction between taking a voluntary leave of absence, which is commonly defined as a “temporary absence from employment or duty with the intention of returning,” and a layoff from employment, which is commonly defined as “[t]he termination of employment at the employer’s instigation.”  Black’s Law Dictionary 896, 901 (7th ed. 1999).