GUY TIRONDOLA v. BOARD OF REVIEW DEPARTMENT OF LABOR GENERAL ELECTRIC CO

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Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division.

GUY J. TIRONDOLA, Appellant, v. BOARD OF REVIEW, DEPARTMENT OF LABOR and GENERAL ELECTRIC CO., Respondents.

DOCKET NO. A–2867–12T2

Decided: March 28, 2014

Before Judges Ostrer and Carroll. Guy J. Tirondola, appellant, argued the cause pro se. Nicole M. DeMuro, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for respondent Board of Review (John J. Hoffman, Acting Attorney General, attorney;  Lewis A. Scheindlin, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel;  Ms. DeMuro, on the brief).   Respondent General Electric Co. has not filed a brief.

Guy J. Tirondola appeals from a final decision by the Board of Review (the Board), which upheld a decision by the Appeal Tribunal.   The Appeal Tribunal determined that Tirondola was disqualified for unemployment compensation benefits because he left work voluntarily without good cause attributable to his work.   We affirm.

During an Appeal Tribunal hearing on November 21, 2012, Tirondola testified that he was employed as a program coordinator at General Electric (GE) beginning on September 6, 2011.   Prior to accepting this position with GE he had suffered from knee pain, which he believed to be arthritis.   After he began employment, the knee pain became more severe.   He was diagnosed with osteochondritis dissecans, for which he underwent surgery on December 15, 2011.   While on medical leave until January 23, 2012, he discovered that he also suffered from osteoporosis.   According to Tirondola, these conditions “were not caused by the job but they were severely aggravated by the job.”

On January 23, 2012, Tirondola returned to work but he engaged in light duty tasks.   On February 14, 2012, he returned to full duty, “[b]ut [due to] the demands of the job and the discomfort level I just couldn't take it anymore so I had to resign.”   He testified that his reason for leaving was that the work aggravated his medical condition.   He also presented the Appeal Tribunal with a doctor's letter dated May 17, 2012, three months after his resignation.   The doctor noted that after surgery Tirondola's symptoms “failed to improve” and “[t]hese symptoms prevent him from working.”

Tricia Washington, GE Healthcare's Human Resources Manager, also testified.   When asked why Tirondola was no longer working at GE, she responded:

Mr. Tirondola submitted a resignation via email on February 19[th] at 5:03 P.M. to Rich Rodriquez who is also Program Coordinator and the resignation letter cites the factors for his resignation as being first and primarily other opportunities more closely aligned with life goals and priorities.   As I understand it Mr. Tirondola has written a book and we were under the belief that he was leaving to pursue those interests, that was published and it is available at Amazon.com. The second reason cited is personal health concerns and the third reason cited is the realization that the original assessment of the position is not accurate and he is not [ ] a well suited match.

On November 28, 2012, the Appeal Tribunal determined that Tirondola's medical condition existed before he began working for GE, and that his inability to work was due to degeneration of that condition and was not attributable to his work.   Accordingly, the Appeal Tribunal concluded that Tirondola was ineligible for unemployment benefits under N.J.S.A. 43:21–5(a), because he “left work voluntarily without good cause attributable to the work.”   On February 12, 2013, the Board affirmed the Appeal Tribunal's decision.   The Board added, “the medical evidence presented by the claimant does not indicate that the job aggravated his condition.”

An employee who has left work voluntarily bears the burden of establishing that he or she did so with good cause attributable to such work.  Brady v. Bd. of Review, 152 N.J. 197, 218 (1997).   While N.J.S.A. 43:21–5(a) does not define “good cause,” the statute has been construed to require more than mere dissatisfaction with working conditions:

In scrutinizing an employee's reason for leaving, the test is one of ordinary common sense and prudence.   Mere dissatisfaction with working conditions which are not shown to be abnormal or do not affect health, does not constitute good cause for leaving work voluntarily.   The decision to leave employment must be compelled by real, substantial and reasonable circumstances not imaginary, trifling and whimsical ones․  [I]t is the employee's responsibility to do what is necessary and reasonable in order to remain employed.

[Domenico v. Bd. of Review, 192 N.J.Super. 284, 288 (App.Div.1983) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).]

Thus, an employee who quits a job without a sufficient work-related reason is disqualified from receiving benefits.

The scope of our review is limited.   An administrative agency's decision is entitled to a “strong presumption of reasonableness.”  City of Newark v. Natural Res. Council, 82 N.J. 530, 539, cert. denied, 449 U.S. 983, 101 S.Ct. 400, 66 L. Ed.2d 245 (1980).   We will not disturb an administrative agency's determinations or findings unless there is a clear showing that:  (1) the agency did not follow the law;  (2) the decision was arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable;  or (3) the decision was not supported by substantial evidence.  In re Virtua–West Jersey Hosp., 194 N.J. 413, 422 (2008).   Substantial evidence is “such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”  In re Pub. Serv. Elec. & Gas Co., 35 N.J. 358, 376 (1961) (quoting In re Hackensack Water Co., 41 N.J.Super. 408, 418 (App.Div.1956)).

Relevant to our analysis is N.J.A.C. 12:17–9.3(b), which provides:

An individual who leaves a job due to a physical and/or mental condition or state of health which does not have a work-connected origin but is aggravated by working conditions will not be disqualified for benefits for voluntarily leaving work without good cause “attributable to such work,” provided there was no other suitable work available which the individual could have performed within the limits of the disability.   When a non-work connected physical and/or mental condition makes it necessary for an individual to leave work due to an inability to perform the job, the individual shall be disqualified for benefits for voluntarily leaving work.

Moreover, “[w]hen an individual leaves work for health or medical reasons, medical certification shall be required to support a finding of good cause attributable to [such] work.”  N.J.A.C. 12:17–9.3(d).  It is thus incumbent upon a claimant to present medical evidence that his or her condition was aggravated by the work.  Israel v. Bally's Park Place, 283 N.J.Super. 1, 5 (App.Div.1995), certif. denied, 143 N.J. 326 (1996).

In Wojcik v. Board of Review, 58 N.J. 341, 344 (1971), claimant argued that his work aggravated his back condition and therefore his leaving the job was for good cause attributable to his employment.   The Court agreed that the aggravation of a preexisting condition would constitute good cause under N.J.S.A. 43:21–5(a).  Ibid. Nonetheless, Wojcik failed to satisfy his burden “since the only medical evidence supporting [his] claim was his doctor's equivocal statement that his work ‘may’ have aggravated his condition.”   Ibid.

Here, the record before us is devoid of any medical evidence that the job aggravated Tirondola's condition.   Absent such unequivocal medical evidence, his decision to terminate his employment with GE is deemed to be without good cause attributable to the work.  Ibid. The May 17, 2012 uncertified letter from Tirondola's orthopedist, upon which he relies, merely states that his symptoms “failed to improve” and “prevent him from working.”   As such, it unquestionably fails to meet the burden of proof.   Consequently, the Board's decision to deny benefits is not arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable.

Affirmed.

PER CURIAM

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