SOCIAL SERVICES LAW

Unemployment Compensation • Hearsay

Stugart v. Unemployment Comp. Bd. of Review, PICS Case No. 14-0311 (Pa. Commw. Feb. 19, 2014) per curiam; Leavitt, J., dissenting (20 pages).

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review’s order denying Stugart unemployment compensation benefits.

Stugart was employed by Williamsport Steel Container Co. from June 13, 2011, through July 20, 2012. Stugart left work on July 20, 2012, and did not return. He later applied for unemployment benefits and was denied because he voluntarily quit his job without a compelling reason. Stugart appealed and a referee hearing was held in September, 2012. The employer did not appear at the hearing. Stugart appeared pro se. The referee found that Stugart was sent home on July 20, 2012, after blaming his productivity on his theory that the U.S. government was using neuron satellite monitoring to remotely control his thoughts and actions at work and asserting that the government was torturing other employees. The referee further found that the employer advised Stugart that it was his choice to come back to work Monday but that the employer would not tolerate hearing opinions and theories about the government any longer. The referee concluded Stugart did not have necessitous and compelling reasons for leaving employment, making him ineligible for unemployment benefits. The UCBR adopted the referee’s findings and affirmed the decision of the referee. Stugart then appealed to the Commonwealth Court.

Stugart argued the UCBR erred by basing its decision entirely on objected to and uncorroborated hearsay. During the course of the proceedings, Stugart averred three times that the statements submitted were not “entirely correct.” The statements were submitted regardless.

Although the law required a referee to reasonably assist in the development of facts necessary to render a decision when one of the parties appears pro se, the referee was not required to assume the role of the litigant’s advocate. Stugart told the referee the documents could be admitted into evidence and the referee relied on them.

On appeal, Stugart argued that the employer gave him an ultimatum that he could only return to work if he agreed to do something that was impossible for him to do (i.e. not talk about government torture and mind control at work), which constituted a constructive discharge. The court held that the ultimate decision of whether Stugart desired to continue working with the employer rested with Stugart himself, because he could control what he talked about at work. The court found nothing in the record to show that the employer objected to Stugart having those beliefs, but only that it found Stugart’s talking about those beliefs at work was objectionable. Stugart simply chose not to return to work rather than to stop talking about his beliefs. Because he voluntarily quit his job, Stugart was not entitled to unemployment benefits.

Judge Leavitt issued a dissenting opinion, saying that Stugart lodged sufficient objections to the admission of the employer’s questionnaire. Only on the third request by the referee did Stugart acquiesce in admitting the documents into evidence. The fact Stugart voiced his objection to the truth of the matter asserted in the employer’s questionnaire was the same as a hearsay objection. Furthermore, Leavitt noted that Stugart had testified that the employer told him not to come back if his opinion didn’t change completely, which was qualitatively different than being told not to volunteer an opinion. Leavitt would have concluded it was a dismissal, not a voluntary resignation, where an employer told an employee not to return to work unless he changed his beliefs.