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kentucky unemployment insurance commission AND KENTUCKY FARM WORKERS PROGRAM APPELLANTS v. BRENDA NELSON–COOK APPELLEE
NOT TO BE PUBLISHED
This appeal concerns a judgment rendered by the Warren Circuit Court, which reversed a decision of the Kentucky Unemployment Insurance Commission denying benefits to Brenda Nelson–Cook. After careful consideration, we reverse the circuit court.
Appellee was employed as a training specialist for the Kentucky Farm Workers Program (KFWP) for approximately twenty-four years. The KFWP receives federal funds from the Department of Labor, and training specialists meet with seasonally-unemployed farm laborers to place them with potential employers. The training specialists arrange contracts with employers in need of laborers, and the KFWP pays 50% of the salary for the farm workers that are matched with an employer. Appellee's primary office was located in Marion County; however, she also worked with clients in neighboring counties, including Taylor County. In 2008, Appellee arranged employment contracts to place farm workers with Cox Interiors, a manufacturing company in Taylor County. In January 2009, Appellee's supervisor, Vickie Hutcheson, was promoted to the position of executive director for KFWP. Hutcheson sent an e-mail to all of the KFWP employees encouraging them to make a financial contribution to the USA Farmworker PAC, and Appellee served as treasurer for the KFWP employees. In June 2009, Hutcheson learned that a portion of the employees at Cox Interiors were on layoff status. Hutcheson addressed the issue with Appellee because the Department of Labor funding regulations mandated that an employer was ineligible for KFWP assistance if employees were on layoff. Appellee denied any wrongdoing. Hutcheson filed an incident report with the Department of Labor, providing notice of the possible funding violation. At Appellee's subsequent performance evaluation, Hutcheson provided a written explanation of the investigation of the potentially fraudulent labor contracts with Cox Interiors. The evaluation also set forth Hutcheson's additional concerns, including: “Unprofessional behavior. Insinuating that because of a business decision made[,] you [Appellee] were going to have to go back on your anxiety/nerve medicine.” Hutcheson sent copies of the evaluation to the KFWP Personnel and Executive Committee. Double Thereafter, Appellee filed a seven-page grievance against Hutcheson with the KFWP Personnel Committee, and she presented her complaints at a committee meeting on August 20, 2009. The committee ultimately determined that the appropriate resolution of Appellee's complaints was to strike the performance evaluation from her employee record. Appellee was dissatisfied with the committee's decision because she felt the committee should have disciplined Hutcheson.
On August 25, 2009, Appellee reported to the Taylor County Career Center to establish a satellite office at Hutcheson's request. Hutcheson wanted Appellee to work from the Taylor County office two mornings per week. The Career Center also housed the unemployment insurance office and similar service agencies. The KFWP grant-funding plan required the agency to utilize office space in a Career Center if it was available. Appellee was dissatisfied with the space provided for her in the Career Center, and she requested to work from the Taylor County Courthouse. Appellee sent an e-mail to Hutcheson asserting that she would not work at the Career Center because the office was a “storage room” with mismatched furniture, boxes, decorations, and cases of soda. Hutcheson acknowledged the complaints and asked Appellee to continue working two mornings per week at the Career Center until Hutcheson could resolve the office situation. Appellee reported to the Career Center office four times; thereafter, she tendered her resignation on October 5, 2009.
Following her separation from employment, Appellee applied for unemployment benefits, alleging she resigned due to a hostile work environment created by Hutcheson. Benefits were initially granted, and the employer appealed that decision. An appeals referee conducted an evidentiary hearing in two sessions during February and May 2010. The referee heard testimony from Appellee, Hutcheson, and Appellee's witness, Ricky Meyers. Numerous documents were also admitted as evidence, detailing the correspondence that took place between Hutcheson and Appellee.
At the hearing, it was Appellee's burden to show that she quit her job for good cause attributable to her employment. Brownlee v. Kentucky Unemployment Ins. Comm'n, 287 S.W.3d 661, 664 (Ky.2009); KRS 341.370(1)(c). Establishing good cause involves an objective assessment of whether a reasonable person would conclude the work conditions compelled a belief that no reasonable alternative existed to quitting the employment. Id. at 665.
Appellee and Hutcheson presented conflicting testimony regarding the events preceding Appellee's resignation. Appellee believed Hutcheson forced her to work at the Career Center in retaliation for filing the personnel grievance. On the other hand, Hutcheson indicated that Appellee's allegations of a hostile workplace arose only after Hutcheson began investigating the contracts executed between Appellee and Cox Interiors. In her testimony, Appellee emphasized that she believed the conditions at the Career Center were unacceptable, contending she did not have a phone or a computer. Appellee also testified that she was humiliated when Hutcheson sent the performance evaluation, which contained medical information,Double to the personnel committee and attached a copy to Ricky Meyers. In contrast, Hutcheson testified that the office space at the Career Center was suitable, noting it was larger than some of the offices at KFWP's central office. Hutcheson asserted that KFWP provided a cell phone to Appellee and that Appellee's work involved hand-written documents that did not require a computer. Hutcheson maintained that Appellee was not singled out when asked to establish a satellite office, as Appellee's co-workers also served multiple counties. Hutcheson also recognized that it was an error in judgment to encourage the employees to donate to the PAC. Finally, Hutcheson explained that she mistakenly attached Appellee's evaluation to an e-mail sent to Ricky Cox, and Hutcheson apologized to Appellee at the personnel committee meeting for her mistake.
In light of the conflicting testimony, the referee weighed the evidence and assessed witness credibility. On June 1, 2010, the referee rendered a decision setting aside the initial grant of benefits. The referee made findings of fact, which addressed the Career Center office space, the allegations regarding Cox Interiors, the employment evaluation and grievance, and the PAC e-mail. The referee's factual findings were supported by Hutcheson's testimony and documentary evidence regarding the circumstances that occurred prior to Appellee's resignation. The referee concluded, in relevant part:
The competent evidence of record does not establish that claimant was subjected to a hostile working environment or that the working conditions were so onerous or burdensome as to render the job unsuitable; nor does it establish that the employer was so unreasonable as to make the job unsuitable. Claimant elected to quit suitable work for less than compelling reasons which demands a benefit disqualification.
Appellant appealed the referee's decision to the Commission. The Commission affirmed and adopted the referee's findings and conclusions as its own.
Appellee filed a complaint in Warren Circuit Court seeking judicial review of the Commission's decision. On April 20, 2012, the circuit court rendered a judgment reversing the Commission. The court found that the Commission's findings of fact were not supported by substantial evidence and that it misapplied the law.
The Commission now appeals the circuit court's decision, arguing that the court exceeded the scope of its review by substituting its judgment for that of the administrative body.
In Thompson v. Kentucky Unemployment Ins. Com'n, 85 S.W.3d 621 (Ky.App.2002), this Court stated the relevant standard of review:
Upon review of an administrative agency's adjudicatory decision, an appeal court's authority is somewhat limited. The judicial standard of review of an unemployment benefit decision is whether the KUIC's findings of fact were supported by substantial evidence and whether the agency correctly applied the law to the facts. Substantial evidence is defined as evidence, taken alone or in light of all the evidence, that has sufficient probative value to induce conviction in the minds of reasonable people. If there is substantial evidence to support the agency's findings, a court must defer to that finding even though there is evidence to the contrary. A court may not substitute its opinion as to the credibility of the witnesses, the weight given the evidence, or the inferences to be drawn from the evidence. A court's function in administrative matters is one of review, not reinterpretation.
Id. at 624 (internal citations omitted).
The Commission contends the circuit court impermissibly re-weighed the evidence and substituted its judgment for that of the fact-finder. On the other hand, Appellee argues the circuit court correctly weighed and analyzed the totality of the evidence to conclude she was subjected to a hostile work environment. The circuit court stated, in relevant part:
A combination of the following evidence in the record constitutes substantial evidence to support a hostile work environment: (1) the aggressive e-mail Ms. Hutcheson sent to KFWP employees soliciting contributions to a PAC; (2) Plaintiff's employment evaluation, including accusations of fraud and personal medical information Ms. Hutcheson sent, via e-mail, to various unauthorized persons; and (3) Plaintiff's placement, by Ms. Hutcheson, in a work space in Taylor County, in which Ms. Hutcheson knew Plaintiff would be unable to adequately perform her work duties to fulfill her required quota.
The circuit court determined that Appellee reached her “breaking point” when Hutcheson assigned her to work in a “storage closet.” The court emphasized that Hutcheson disseminated Appellee's personal medical information, and it concluded that Hutcheson's apology for mistakenly sending the e-mail to Ricky Meyers was “insufficient” to refute the existence of a hostile work environment.
We believe the circuit court erred by concluding that the Commission's decision was not supported by substantial evidence. The Commission's decision clearly addressed the items cited by the circuit court; however, the Commission obviously found the testimony of Hutcheson more persuasive and credible. For instance, Hutcheson acknowledged that it was a “grave error” to send an e-mail asking all of the employees to contribute to a PAC. Hutcheson also explained that she properly sent Appellee's evaluation to members of the Executive Board and Personnel Committee; however, Hutcheson acknowledged the evaluation had been “erroneously attached to an e-mail to Ricky Meyers.” When Hutcheson realized the e-mail was sent to Meyers, she apologized to Appellee for the error. Finally, Hutcheson stated that Appellee had been successful as the training specialist for the Taylor County area for “many years” and that Appellee had a high number of job placements in Taylor County. Further, Hutcheson asserted that the high unemployment numbers for Taylor County warranted setting up a satellite office there, to make it easier for unemployed laborers to have contact with the KFWP specialist.
The parties presented conflicting testimony, and the Commission was vested with discretion to pick and choose what evidence to believe. Caudill v. Maloney's Discount Stores, 560 S.W.2d 15, 16 (Ky.1977). Although the circuit court obviously disagreed with the Commission's findings, the Commission's factual determinations were supported by substantial evidence. “The fact that a reviewing court may not have come to the same conclusion regarding the same findings of fact does not warrant substitution of a court's discretion for that of an administrative agency.” Kentucky Unemployment Ins. Com'n v. Landmark Community Newspapers of Kentucky, Inc., 91 S.W.3d 575, 581–82 (Ky.2002).
Although there was evidence to support Appellee's claims, the evidence in her favor was not “so compelling that no reasonable person could have failed to be persuaded by it.” McManus v. Ky. Ret. Sys., 124 S.W.3d 454, 458 (Ky.App.2003). We conclude the court improperly usurped the Commission's role as fact-finder and re-weighed the evidence in order to reach a decision favorable to Appellee. After careful review, we must reverse the circuit court because it impermissibly substituted its judgment for that of the Commission.
Since Appellee voluntarily quit her employment, she was disqualified from receiving benefits if she quit “without good cause attributable to the employment.” KRS 341.370(1)(c). The Kentucky Supreme Court has stated, “Good cause for voluntarily quitting work exists only when the worker is faced with circumstances so compelling as to leave no reasonable alternative but loss of employment.” Kentucky Unemployment Ins. Comm'n v. Murphy, 539 S.W.2d 293, 294 (Ky.1976).
Appellee claimed that a combination of several different events (the PAC e-mail, the performance evaluation, the Career Center office) made her feel harassed and humiliated, compelling her to resign. On the other hand, evidence submitted by the employer showed that the circumstances were not necessarily as compelling as Appellee asserted. For instance, Hutcheson offered a reasonable explanation for establishing the satellite office at the Career Center two mornings per week, and she opined that Appellee was not treated differently than her co-workers. Hutcheson also explained that, as executive director, she was obligated to file an incident report with the Department of Labor regarding the funding for the Cox Interior contracts.
Establishing good cause involves an objective assessment of whether a reasonable person would conclude the work conditions compelled a belief that no reasonable alternative existed to quitting the employment. Brownlee, 287 S.W.3d at 665. In this case, we are not persuaded that a reasonable person would conclude that the circumstances compelled Appellee to believe she had no alternative other than resigning. After careful review, we agree with the Commission's conclusion, which stated in relevant part:
The competent evidence of record does not establish that claimant was subjected to a hostile working environment or that the working conditions were so onerous or burdensome as to render the job unsuitable; nor does it establish that the employer was so unreasonable as to make the job unsuitable.
The Commission correctly determined that Appellee was not entitled to benefits, and the circuit court's decision reversing the Commission was erroneous.
For the reasons stated herein, we reverse the judgment of the Warren Circuit Court.
caperton, judge, CONCURs.
COMBS, JUDGE, CONCURS AND FILES SEPARATE OPINION.
COMBS, JUDGE, CONCURRING: The “substantial evidence” standard in administrative cases is often troubling to me, and it is disturbing in this case. “Some evidence” does not necessarily equate with “substantial evidence.” I am persuaded that the trial court did its best to weigh those two standards in determining that only some – and not substantial – evidence existed to support the Commission's decision.
This case involves a very close call. While I defer to the majority opinion, I do so with reservation, noting that the trial court did not commit an egregious error but rather made a sound and good-faith effort to assess the evidence. Appellate review of administrative decisions must be meaningful, and the trial court did conduct a conscientious review. Therefore, while I agree to a reversal in this case, I do so reluctantly.
Response sent, thank you
Docket No: NO. 2012–CA–000913–MR
Decided: June 07, 2013
Court: Court of Appeals of Kentucky.
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