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Chamberlain v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

April 27, 2015

CHARLES H. CHAMBERLAIN, Appellee
v.
UNEMPLOYMENT COMPENSATION BOARD OF REVIEW, Appellant

Argued: November 18, 2014.

Appeal from the order of the Commonwealth Court dated January 3, 2014 at No. 604 CD 2013 Reversing the decision of the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review dated March 13, 2013 at Appeal No. B-EUC-12-09-F-B648-A, Decision No. B-549177.

Appeal Allowed July 16, 2014 at 63 MAL 2014.

Intermediate Court Judges: Dan Pellegrini, President Judge, Bernard L. McGinley, Judge, Patricia A. McCullough, Judge.

For Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, APPELLANT: Judith Marie Gilroy, Esq., PA Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, Gerard Matthew Mackarevich, Esq., Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, Arthur F. McNulty, Esq., Thomas Christopher Zipfel, Esq., Department of Labor and Industry.

For Charles H. Chamberlain, APPELLEE: George Robert Studzinski, Esq.

MR. JUSTICE BAER. CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, STEVENS, JJ. Former Chief Justice Castille did not participate in the decision of this case. Mr. Chief Justice Saylor, Mr. Justice Eakin and Madame Justice Todd join the opinion. Mr. Justice Stevens files a dissenting opinion.

OPINION

Page 386

MR. BAER, JUSTICE.

This appeal presents the issue of whether a claimant sentenced to house arrest is " incarcerated" for purposes of Section 402.6 of the Unemployment Compensation Law (UC Law),[1] and, thus, is disqualified from receiving unemployment compensation benefits. Mindful of the remedial purpose of the UC Law, the Commonwealth Court held that a claimant sentenced to house arrest is not " incarcerated" under Section 402.6. Because the terms and conditions of the claimant's house arrest did not otherwise prevent him from satisfying the statutory requirements for obtaining unemployment compensation benefits, the Commonwealth Court reversed the denial of benefits. For the reasons set forth herein, we affirm.

For ease of discussion, we begin by examining the pertinent provisions of the UC Law. Significantly, Section 401 sets forth the " [q]ualifications required to secure compensation." 43 P.S. § 801. Section 401(d) mandates that the claimant " [i]s able to work and available for suitable work." Id. § 801(d)(1).[2] Further, Section 401 lists additional qualifications including,

Page 387

inter alia, the receipt of wages for employment for an enumerated period, participation in an active search for suitable employment, and submission of a valid application for benefits after having been unemployed for one week. Id. § 801.

Section 402.6 (Ineligibility of incarcerated employe) disqualifies a claimant from receiving benefits and provides:

An employe shall not be eligible for payment of unemployment compensation benefits for any weeks of unemployment during which the employe is incarcerated after a conviction.

Id., § 802.6.[3]

Here, the record establishes that in July of 2012, Charles H. Chamberlain (Claimant) was unemployed and was receiving unemployment compensation benefits. On October 2, 2012, he pled guilty in Magisterial District Court to the summary offenses of operating a vehicle without a valid inspection, and driving with a suspended license. Relating to the latter conviction, Claimant was sentenced to sixty days in the Keystone House Arrest Program (from November 1, 2012 to December 31, 2012) with the condition that if he failed to comply, he would serve sixty days in the York County Prison. Claimant was also required to attend reemployment eligibility assessment classes via CareerLink. The terms of Claimant's house arrest restricted him to the home of his sister, but permitted him to work, run errands, and Christmas shop.

On November 28, 2012, as relevant herein, the local service center of the Office of Unemployment Compensation Benefits issued a notice of determination that Claimant's sentence of house arrest disqualified him from receipt of benefits because he was " incarcerated after a conviction" under Section 402.6. Claimant appealed the finding of disqualification and, on January 14, 2013, a hearing was held before a referee for the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review (UCBR). At the hearing, testimony was presented from Judy Will, an investigator for the Internal Audit Division of the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry (Department), and Claimant. Will testified that the Department interpreted Section 402.6 as disqualifying a claimant who has been convicted of a crime and incarcerated, regardless of whether the claimant was under house arrest, in a halfway house, or any other place " in lieu of" prison.

Claimant testified that during his house arrest, he spent no time in prison or any other state correctional institution, but rather lived at his sister's residence, and had permission to work, run errands, and shop for Christmas. Indeed, he stated that he actually worked nine of the sixty days while on house arrest, and reported his work to the local service center. Claimant emphasized that he was sentenced to intermediate punishment through a county program in lieu of incarceration, and relied upon provisions of the Sentencing Code, Sections 9721 (sentencing generally) and Section 9763 (sentence of county intermediate punishment), 42 Pa.C.S. § § 9721 and 9763, which define a sentence of county intermediate punishment as an alternative to a sentence of total or partial confinement in a correctional institution, and set forth various conditions a court may attach to a sentence of county intermediate punishment.[4]

Page 388

By decision and order dated January 15, 2013, the referee concluded that Claimant was disqualified from receiving benefits during the period he was on house arrest. Citing no authority for the proposition, the referee interpreted Section 402.6 as rendering a claimant ineligible to receive unemployment compensation benefits whenever he is convicted of a crime and " incarcerated," regardless of where the claimant serves his " incarceration." [5]

Claimant filed a timely appeal with the UCBR, claiming that the referee misapplied the law and that the referee's decision was not supported by the record. The UCBR affirmed the referee's decision, adopting its findings and conclusion of law that Claimant was disqualified from receiving benefits under Section 402.6.

Claimant thereafter appealed to the Commonwealth Court, reiterating his claim that house arrest does not constitute " incarceration" for purposes of Section 402.6 of the UC Law. Emphasizing that the UC Law was intended to be remedial in nature and liberally construed, Claimant argued that the plain meaning of " incarcerated" simply does not encompass living at home. Moreover, he again relied upon the aforementioned provisions of the Sentencing Code, which provide for various sentencing alternatives and categorize a sentence of house arrest differently from a sentence of confinement in prison.

Finally, Claimant analogized the term " incarcerated" in Section 402.6 of the UC Law to the term " imprisonment" in former Section 3731 of the Vehicle Code, 75 Pa.C.S. § 3731(e) (repealed), which this Court had previously interpreted as not being equivalent to house arrest for purposes of determining parole eligibility. See Commonwealth v. Kriston, 527 Pa. 90, 588 A.2d 898, 899 (Pa. 1991) (holding that " it would grossly distort the language used by the legislature if we were to conclude that the term 'imprisonment' means merely 'staying at home.' The plain and ordinary meaning of imprisonment is confinement in a correctional or similar rehabilitative institution, not staying at home." ) (emphasis omitted).

Page 389

In response, the UCBR argued that the phrase " incarcerated after a conviction" in Section 402.6 of the UC Law should be construed in the same manner as that phrase has been interpreted in cases involving nearly identical language in the disqualification provision for incarcerated claimants under Section 306(a.1) of the Workers' Compensation Act (WC Act), i.e., to encompass a sentence of house arrest.[6] See Moore v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board (Babcock & Wilcox Co.), 811 A.2d 631, 634 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2002) (holding that a claimant sentenced to house arrest with work release is " incarcerated after a conviction" and is disqualified from receiving workers' compensation benefits under Section 306(a.1) of the WC Act because a claimant on house arrest is in the constructive custody of the Commonwealth, his liberty is significantly limited by security measures, and unauthorized departures may result in criminal sanctions).

The UCBR asserted that other workers' compensation cases have held that " incarceration after a conviction" encompasses more than imprisonment in a correctional facility. See Henkels & McCoy, Inc. v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board (Henrie), 565 Pa. 493, 776 A.2d 951, 955 (Pa. 2001) (holding that a claimant who was sentenced to five years' probation with the condition of involuntarily commitment in a psychiatric facility was " incarcerated" for purposes of the WC Act because the prisoner remained confined in the constructive custody of the Commonwealth and was removed from the workforce as a result of his criminal sentence); Brinker's International, Inc. v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board (Weissenstein), 721 A.2d 406, 410 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1998) (holding that " incarcerated" in Section 306(a)(2) of the WC Act should not be construed to mean only confinement in jail, but also encompasses a defendant incarcerated at a detention and alcohol recovery facility who is eligible for work release).

The Commonwealth Court reversed the UCBR's determination that house arrest was equivalent to " incarceration" for purposes of Section 402.6 of the UC Law, and concluded that Claimant was entitled to unemployment compensation benefits. Chamberlain v. Unemployment Comp. Bd. of Review, 83 A.3d 283 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2014).

The court emphasized that the UC Law was intended to be remedial in nature and protect workers who had suffered a loss of income due to separation from employment through no fault of their own. Id. at 292 (citing Section 3 of the UC Law (declaration of public policy), 43 P.S. § 752; Preservation Pennsylvania v. Unemployment Comp. Bd. of Review, 673 A.2d 1044 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1996)).

The Commonwealth Court distinguished the cases relied upon by the UCBR, which were governed by the WC Act. It emphasized the different purposes underlying the two statutes -- that under the WC Act, a claimant is entitled to compensation for a loss of earning power that is caused by a work injury; while under the UC Law, a claimant is generally provided economic security when he is unemployed through no fault of his own and is able and available for work. Chamberlain, 83 A.3d at 292.

The court found it noteworthy that, unlike in Moore, where the Commonwealth Court ruled that a claimant sentenced to house arrest with work release was ineligible for workers' compensation benefits because he was " incarcerated" under Section

Page 390

306(a)(2) of the WC Act, the terms of Claimant's house arrest placed no restrictions on his ability to work. Id. Thus, it concluded, the rationale employed by the Commonwealth Court in Moore and by this Court Henkels & McCoy, Inc., i.e., that the General Assembly intended to preclude the payment of workers' compensation benefits to claimants who have been removed from the work force, is not applicable here where Claimant was available for work while on house arrest. The court further noted that it would contravene the remedial purpose of the Act to interpret " incarcerated" as encompassing house arrest when this Court in Kriston held that house arrest is not equivalent to incarceration for purposes of sentence credit. Id.

Significantly, the Commonwealth Court clarified that it was not holding that an individual sentenced to house arrest is eligible for unemployment benefits as a matter of law. Rather, it held only that " house arrest is not 'incarceration' that renders a claimant ineligible for unemployment compensation under [S]ection 402.6 of the [UC] Law." Id. at 292-93 (footnote omitted). The court recognized that a claimant under house arrest may be subject to conditions that disqualify him from benefits under other provisions of the UC Law, but reiterated that the terms of Claimant's house arrest did not impact his ability to go to work. Id. at 293 n.11. Under the facts presented, the court concluded there was no evidence refuting Claimant's assertions that he was genuinely attached to the labor market. Id. at 293. It stated, " although the Department bore the burden of proof in the ...


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