A bare majority of a sharply divided New Jersey Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that a nurse who left one job for health reasons to take a desk job with another employer—but lost the new job after failing a qualification exam—was not entitled to unemployment benefits.
In a 4-3 ruling, the majority ruled that the petitioner, Margo Ardan, failed to make her case that she should be awarded benefits. The majority, in a ruling written by Justice Anne Patterson, said a 2015 amendment to the state’s Unemployment Compensation Law—which was enacted while Ardan’s case was pending and would have allowed to receive benefits—does not apply retroactively.
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and Justices Faustino Fernandez-Vina and Lee Solomon joined in Patterson’s ruling.
Justice Jaynee LaVecchia, joined by Justices Barry Albin and Walter Timpone, dissented.
Ardan was appealing a decision by the Board of Review of the Department of Labor and Workforce Development denying her application for benefits. Ardan worked for Lourdes Medical Center from September 2010 to November 2012, when she resigned to take a desk job with Alliance Healthcare. Ardan had decided to leave Lourdes because of neck, back and knee problems, which made it difficult to perform her work, part of which involved moving heavy patients, she claimed.
According to documents, she started work with Alliance within five days, but was fired after seven weeks because she was unable to pass a job performance test. She then applied for unemployment benefits, which Lourdes challenged, largely because Ardan never gave the hospital a reason for quitting. The Appellate Division affirmed.
The majority reversed a portion of the Appellate Division ruling that said employees leaving the job had to tell their employers why they were leaving before becoming eligible for benefits.
“We do not view [the unemployment compensation statute] to generally impose a notice-and-inquiry requirement on every claimant who has departed her work because that work aggravated a medical condition,” Patterson said.
Aradan, however, should have at least discussed with Lourdes the possibility of a different work assignment, Patterson said.
The majority said that the 2015 amendment—which provides an exception to disqualification from benefits for voluntarily leaving where the employee leaves because of a health condition not caused by, but aggravated by, a current job—should not be retroactively applied to Ardan.
In her dissent, LaVecchia said the majority’s interpretation of the statute in Ardan’s case ran afoul of its “remedial and beneficial” purposes.
“Ardan believes she met this exception, and her position is supported by uncontroverted testimony before the appeal tribunal,” LaVecchia said.
“No statute or regulation requires that she make a futile application as a condition of later receiving unemployment benefits,” she added.
Ardan was represented by Sarah Hymowitz of Legal Services of New Jersey. She said that while she was disappointed for her client, she was gratified that the court rejected the blanket notice-and-inquiry rule.
The Department of Labor and Workforce Development was represented by the Attorney General’s Office, which referred inquiries back to the department. The department did not respond to a request for comment.