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Harmon v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

June 7, 2017

Daniel Harmon, Petitioner
v.
Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, Respondent

          Argued: March 8, 2017

          BEFORE: HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, President Judge, HONORABLE ROBERT SIMPSON, Judge, HONORABLE P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge, HONORABLE ANNE E. COVEY, Judge, HONORABLE MICHAEL H. WOJCIK, Judge, HONORABLE JULIA K. HEARTHWAY, Judge, HONORABLE JOSEPH M. COSGROVE, Judge.

          OPINION

          BROBSON JUDGE.

         Petitioner Daniel Harmon (Claimant) petitions for review of an order of the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review (Board). The Board affirmed an Unemployment Compensation Referee's (Referee) decision, finding Claimant ineligible for unemployment compensation benefits pursuant to Section 402.6 of the Unemployment Compensation Law (Law).[1] We now affirm.

         Claimant was employed by Browns Shop Rite (Employer). On December 18, 2013, Claimant pled guilty to a charge of driving with a suspended or revoked driver's license, 75 Pa. C.S. § 1543 (b)(1). (Certified Record (C.R.), Item No. 2 at Docket Sheet.) As a result of Claimant's guilty plea, he was sentenced "to 60 days confinement to be served on 30 consecutive weekends." (Id.) Claimant began serving his sentence on March 14, 2014, and he was permanently released on August 7, 2014. (Id.) During this period, Employer terminated Claimant's employment for reasons unrelated to his incarceration, and Claimant filed for unemployment compensation benefits effective March 23, 2014. (C.R., Item No. 1.) The Erie UC Service Center (Service Center) issued a determination finding Claimant ineligible for benefits for the weeks ending March 29, 2014, through July 26, 2014, because Claimant was incarcerated during this period. (C.R., Item No. 3 at Notice of Determination.) The Service Center further determined that Claimant's failure to report his incarceration while filing for unemployment compensation benefits resulted in a fault overpayment of benefits, for which the Service Center assessed a penalty of $438.75 and 17 penalty weeks. (Id.) Claimant appealed the Service Center's determination, and a Referee conducted a hearing.

         During the hearing before the Referee, Claimant, who was unrepresented by counsel, testified that he worked an average of twenty hours per week prior to Employer's termination of his employment for "violation of company policy." (C.R., Item No. 7 at 4.) Claimant began serving his sentence for driving with a suspended license on March 14, 2014. (Id. at 5.) Throughout the length of his sentence, Claimant reported to the prison at 5:00 p.m. on Fridays and was released every Sunday at 3:00 p.m. (Id.) When he began serving his sentence, Claimant continued to work for Employer during the week. (Id. at 8.) After Employer terminated his employment, Claimant sought alternative employment, because he "was always available to work." (Id. at 9.) Claimant testified that he did not knowingly withhold information from the Service Center while filing for unemployment compensation benefits. (Id. at 6.) Claimant indicated that he received but had not fully read an Unemployment Compensation Handbook. (Id.)

         Andrea Quirk, an Unemployment Compensation Claims Examiner, also testified at the hearing before the Referee. Ms. Quirk testified that the Unemployment Compensation Handbook informs claimants that they are not eligible for "benefits for any week in which [the claimant is] incarcerated due to a conviction." (Id. at 7.) Although Claimant received the Unemployment Compensation Handbook, he did not inform the Service Center that he was incarcerated on the weekends. (Id.) Ms. Quirk cited Claimant's knowing failure to report his incarceration to the Service Center as justification for the assessment of the penalty and penalty weeks. (Id. at 7, 9.)

         The Referee issued a decision, affirming the Service Center's determination as to Claimant's ineligibility for benefits under Section 402.6 of the Law. In so doing, the Referee made the following findings of fact:

1. The Claimant was last employed by Browns Shop Rite as a Customer Service Aide, part-time from 2/14/2013 through 3/24/2014 at a final rate of $9.75 per hour.
2. The Claimant's separation from employment is not at issue in this appeal.
3. The Claimant was incarcerated from 3/14/2014 through 8/7/2014 as a result of a traffic conviction for driving on a suspended license.
4. As part of the Claimant's conviction, the Claimant was ordered by the court to serve consecutive 48 hour periods, weekends in incarceration in prison.
5. The Claimant's weekly incarceration begins Friday at 5:00 p.m. through Sunday at 3:00 p.m. each week.
6. The Claimant states he is able to work and available to work around his incarceration.

         (C.R., Item No. 8 at 1.) The Referee reasoned that Claimant was ineligible for benefits "due to his conviction and incarceration during the weeks at issue." (Id. at 2.) The Referee further found that Claimant did not intentionally withhold the information concerning his incarceration from the Service Center. Accordingly, the Referee modified the portion of the Service Center's award which assessed penalty weeks.

         Claimant retained counsel and appealed the Referee's decision to the Board. Claimant contended that incarceration during the weekend does not render a claimant ineligible for benefits under Section 402.6 of the Law. Claimant's incarceration was not continuous, and Claimant argued that he was thus able and available to work during the week. Claimant further argued that because the Referee found that Claimant did not intentionally withhold information from the Service Center, the determination as to Claimant's fault overpayment should be reversed. The Board affirmed the Referee's decision as to Claimant's ineligibility for benefits under Section 402.6 of the Law and adopted the Referee's findings of fact and conclusions of law. The Board, however, modified the overpayment of benefits to a non-fault overpayment. Claimant petitioned this Court for review of the Board's order.

         On appeal, [2] Claimant contends that the Board erred in concluding that Section 402.6 of the Law rendered him ineligible for benefits. In support of that contention, Claimant first argues that the plain language of Section 402.6 of the Law requires that a claimant must be incarcerated for an entire week to be found ineligible for benefits. If, however, this Court concludes that the language of Section 402.6 of the Law is ambiguous, Claimant argues that the legislative intent behind the enactment of Section 402.6 of the Law precludes application of the section to claimants who are only incarcerated on the weekends. Claimant next argues that because the Law is to be liberally construed, Section 402.6 should not be applied in an overly punitive matter. Last, Claimant argues that Section 402.6 of the Law should be interpreted so as to be internally consistent with other provisions of the Law.[3]

         We first address Claimant's argument that the plain language of Section 402.6 of the Law does not preclude him from being eligible for benefits. Section 402.6 of the Law 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." Claimant asserts that Section 402.6 requires that the claimant must be continuously incarcerated for the full week in order for a claimant to be found ineligible for benefits for a week. In support of this assertion, Claimant relies on the definition of the word "during, " which is not defined in the Law and can, in some instances, imply continuity. Claimant contends that such a definition results in a "durational requirement"- namely, that a claimant is only ineligible for benefits under Section 402.6 of the Law if he or she is continuously incarcerated throughout the entirety of the week. Because Claimant was only incarcerated during the weekends, Claimant thus contends that he is eligible. The Board counters that "during" may also mean "at some point, " and the Board's interpretation of Section 402.6 of the Law as precluding a claimant who is incarcerated during the weekend from receiving benefits is, therefore, reasonable.

         When interpreting a statute, this Court is guided by the Statutory Construction Act of 1972, 1 Pa. C.S. §§ 1501-1991, which provides that "[t]he object of all interpretation and construction of statutes is to ascertain and effectuate the intention of the General Assembly." 1 Pa. C.S. § 1921(a). "The clearest indication of legislative intent is generally the plain language of a statute." Walker v. Eleby, 842 A.2d 389, 400 (Pa. 2004). "When the words of a statute are clear and free from all ambiguity, the letter of it is not to be disregarded under the pretext of pursuing its spirit." 1 Pa. C.S. § 1921(b). Only "[w]hen the words of the statute are not explicit" may this Court resort to statutory construction. 1 Pa. C.S. § 1921(c). "A statute is ambiguous or unclear if its language is subject to two or more reasonable interpretations." Bethenergy Mines, Inc. v. Dep't of Envtl. Prot., 676 A.2d 711, 715 (Pa. Cmwlth.), appeal denied, 685 A.2d 547 (Pa. 1996). Moreover, "[e]very statute shall be construed, if possible, to give effect to all its provisions." 1 Pa. C.S. § 1921(a). It is presumed "[t]hat the General Assembly intends the entire statute to be effective and certain." 1 Pa. C.S. § 1922(2). Thus, no provision of a statute shall be "reduced to mere surplusage." Walker, 842 A.2d at 400. Finally, it is presumed "[t]hat the General Assembly does not intend a result that is absurd, impossible of execution or unreasonable." 1 Pa. C.S. § 1922(1).

         As observed above, the term "during" is not defined in the Law. Where a term is not expressly defined in a statute, this Court will construe the term according to its common and approved usage. 1 Pa. C.S. § 1903(a). "In ascertaining the common and approved usage or meaning, a court may resort to the dictionary definitions of the terms left undefined by the legislature." Leventakos v. Workers' Comp. Appeal Bd. (Spyros Painting), 82 A.3d 481, 484 n.4 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2013), appeal denied, 93 A.3d 464 (Pa. 2014). Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary provides the following definitions of the word "during": (1) "throughout the duration of, " and (2) "at a point in the course of." Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary 360 (10th ed. 1997). As the parties correctly note, these definitions differ in that the former appears to require continuity for a period of time, while the latter simply means at some point in a period of time. Claimant's interpretation of the statute would thus require a claimant's incarceration throughout the duration of a week of unemployment-i.e., 24 hours a day, each day of a week. The Board's interpretation, by contrast, requires only that a claimant be incarcerated at some point in the week.[4] As both interpretations, in isolation, are reasonable, we conclude that the language of Section 402.6 of the Law is ambiguous, and, consequently, we reject Claimant's argument as to the plain language of the statute.

         Having concluded that the language of Section 402.6 of the Law is ambiguous, we must engage in statutory construction to discern the intent of the General Assembly. "One aid in construing statutory language is an administrative agency's interpretation of the language of the statute it is charged with administering, which will be given deference unless the interpretation is clearly erroneous." Summit Sch., Inc. v. Dep't of Educ., 108 A.3d 192, 198 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2015). The Board's interpretation, which relies on one of two equally reasonable definitions of the term "during, " is not clearly erroneous, and we address Claimant's remaining arguments bearing in mind the deference to which the Board's interpretation of Section 402.6 of the Law is entitled.[5]

         Claimant contends that the legislative history underlying the enactment of Section 402.6 of the Law illustrates the General Assembly's intent to preclude from receiving benefits only those claimants who are granted work release, but remain incarcerated and live at the taxpayers' expense throughout the entire week. In support of this argument, Claimant cites the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania's decision in Chamberlain v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 114 A.3d 385 (Pa. 2015). There, the Board found that a claimant was ineligible for benefits under Section 402.6 of the Law, because the claimant was sentenced to serve a term of house arrest. During this house arrest, the claimant "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." Chamberlain, 114 A.3d at 387. The claimant appealed the Board's determination as to his eligibility to this Court, which reversed. In so doing, we explained that interpreting house arrest as the equivalent to incarceration for purposes of Section 402.6 of the Law would contravene the remedial purpose of the Law. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed our decision. Our Supreme Court cited the following comment, which was made immediately prior to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives' vote on the amendment of the bill concerning Section 402.6 of the Law:

Mr. Speaker, this amendment would put into the . . . Law a prohibition which is similar to one which we inserted into the workers' compensation law in 1993. Specifically, this amendment says that someone who is incarcerated after a conviction does not receive unemployment benefits.
I learned to my surprise a month or so ago from a business in my district that it is possible now, if you are convicted and you are in prison and you qualify for work release and your employer does not want you back, you then get unemployment compensation. This businessman in my district and the other employees in that company do not think that is right; I do not think that is right either, and I think we ought to change the law.

Id. at 396 (quoting H.R. Legis. Journal No. 31, 180th Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. 835 (Pa. 1996) (statement of Rep. William Lloyd)). The Supreme Court explained that this comment demonstrated the General Assembly's intent to change the law established by this Court's decision in Greer v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 392 A.2d 918 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1978), wherein we concluded that an incarcerated claimant participating in a work release program was able to obtain unemployment compensation benefits. There was no evidence, however, that the General Assembly's intent to supersede Greer extended to the disqualification of "claimants who were not incarcerated in a prison or an alternative institutional setting, but rather were sentenced to the less severe sanction of home confinement." Id. Accordingly, the Supreme Court concluded that claimants sentenced to house arrest were not automatically ineligible for benefits under Section 402.6 of the Law.

         Here, Claimant contends that unlike claimants participating in a work release program, he was not incarcerated and living at the taxpayers' expense for the majority of the week. Claimant thus argues that the legislative history, as explained in Chamberlain, does not support precluding claimants from receiving benefits when they are free from incarceration for the majority of the week. This Court, however, has recently applied Section 402.6 of the Law to a claimant sentenced to weekend incarceration, rather than work release. In Gonzalez v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, (Pa. Cmwlth., No. 1825 C.D. 2014, filed Aug. 18, 2015), [6] the Board concluded that a claimant who was sentenced to weekend incarceration was ineligible for benefits under Section 402.6 of the Law. The claimant appealed to this Court, arguing "that because he is only incarcerated for two days per week, days in which he did not usually work anyway, that he established eligibility for unemployment compensation benefits." Gonzalez, slip op. at 1. In affirming the Board's order, we explained that the claimant's ability to work during the week was not dispositive. Rather, "the decision in Chamberlain makes clear that the applicability of Section 402.6 [of the Law] does not depend upon the claimant's availability for work, but upon the meaning of the term incarceration, which it found to be 'starkly different' from home confinement." Id., slip op. at 3. We concluded that although the claimant was only incarcerated during the weekend, there was no question that he was "incarcerated" for the purposes of Section 402.6 of the Law, and, therefore, the claimant was ineligible for benefits.

         Claimant contends that Gonzalez is distinguishable from the instant matter, because the only question in Gonzalez was whether the pro se claimant was "incarcerated" for the purposes of Section 402.6 of the Law. Here, in contrast, Claimant concedes that he was incarcerated but argues that he is nevertheless eligible for benefits, because his weekend incarceration does not satisfy the "durational requirement" of Section 402.6 of the Law. We are not persuaded that this argument necessitates a different result from that in Gonzalez. The principles developed in Chamberlain, as we explained in Gonzalez, demonstrate that the applicability of Section 402.6 of the Law depends upon whether a claimant is incarcerated within the meaning of the Law. Claimant here concedes that he was incarcerated. (Claimant's Br. at 10, 28.) Further, even if Claimant argued that he was not incarcerated within the meaning of Section 402.6 of the Law, Claimant's sentence is different from the sentence of home confinement at issue in Chamberlain, because Claimant was confined, at least part of the week, in a correctional facility at the expense of taxpayers. In this sense, Claimant's sentence is similar to that of claimants participating in work release programs, which the General Assembly clearly intended to preclude from receiving benefits when it enacted Section 402.6 of the Law. Accordingly, we reject Claimant's argument as to the legislative history of Section 402.6 of the Law.

         Claimant next argues that the Board's interpretation of Section 402.6 of the Law is overly punitive and contravenes the remedial purpose of the Law. Specifically, Claimant maintains that the Law must be liberally construed so as to provide the broadest possible benefits. Claimant explains that the Board's interpretation of Section 402.6 of the Law would unjustly prevent Claimant from receiving benefits for seven and a half months even though the term of his sentence was only two months.

         Section 3 of the Law, [7] relating to declaration of public policy, provides that "[e]conomic insecurity due to unemployment is a serious menace to the health, morals, and welfare of the people of the Commonwealth." As such, it is well-settled that "[t]he purpose of the Law is to be remedial and broadly construed so that employees who become unemployed through no fault of their own are provided with some semblance of economic security." Darby Twp. v. Unemployment Comp. Bd. of Review, 429 A.2d 1223, 1227 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1981). "Conversely, disqualification provisions . . . should be narrowly construed and a claimant must not be denied compensation unless he is unequivocally excluded by the plain language of these provisions." Penflex, Inc. v. Bryson, 485 A.2d 359, 365 (Pa. 1984). As noted above, the applicability of Section 402.6 of the Law is dependent upon whether a claimant is incarcerated. The extent of a claimant's confinement is, at best, only relevant to a determination of whether a claimant is incarcerated within the meaning of Section 402.6 of the Law. See Chamberlain; Gonzalez. Claimant concedes that he was incarcerated, and, consequently, when interpreted in light of the discussions above he is excluded from receiving unemployment compensation benefits under Section 402.6 of the Law. Accordingly, we reject Claimant's argument that the Board's interpretation of Section 402.6 of the Law is overly punitive and contravenes the remedial purpose of the Law.[8]

         Last, Claimant contends that the Board's interpretation of Section 402.6 of the Law is not consistent with other sections of the Law. Specifically, Claimant argues that Section 401(d)(1) of the Law, [9] which requires a claimant to be able and available for work to be eligible for benefits, has been interpreted so as to allow claimants who are only partially available for work to be eligible for benefits. Additionally, Claimant explains that a claimant who only receives earnings for part-time work may also be eligible for benefits. Claimant thus contends that in the interest of consistency Section 402.6 of the Law should be construed so as to allow a claimant who is only incarcerated for part of the week to be eligible for benefits.

         Claimant's argument concerning consistency involves provisions of the Law that relate to a claimant's eligibility for benefits. See Section 401 of the Law (listing qualifications required for claimant to receive benefits); Section 4(g.1) of the Law[10] (establishing credit week as every week in which claimant earned sixteen times the minimum wage). Thus, if a claimant has only limited availability for work or only earns part-time wages, he or she may still be eligible for benefits. See, e.g., Rohde v. Unemployment Comp. Bd. of Review, 28 A.3d 237 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2011) (holding that claimant's limited availability did not remove him from labor market and claimant was thus able and available for work). Section 402.6 of the Law, however, is a provision which expressly relates to a claimant's ineligibility for benefits. Instead of providing the criteria with which a claimant must comply in order to be eligible for benefits, Section 402.6 of the Law was enacted for the purpose of precluding incarcerated claimants from receiving benefits. It is not inconsistent, therefore, for the Board to interpret Section 402.6 of the Law as prohibiting a claimant from receiving benefits if the claimant has been incarcerated for part of the week. Rather, the Board's interpretation is consistent, because the provisions concerning eligibility permit the Board to find a claimant eligible for benefits when the claimant is only partially available for work, and the provisions concerning ineligibility permit the Board to find a claimant ineligible for benefits when the claimant is incarcerated for only part of the week.

         In further support of this reasoning, we note that although a claimant may be eligible for unemployment compensation benefits under Section 401 of the Law, as amended, 43 P.S. § 801(d), other provisions of the Law may nevertheless render that claimant not eligible for benefits as a matter of law, including Section 402.1 of the Law, added by the Act of July 6, 1977, P.L. 41, as amended, 43 P.S. § 802.1, [11] and Section 402.6 of the Law. These statutory provisions, therefore, render a claimant ineligible for benefits as a matter of law without reference to or consideration of his ability or availability to work. Thus, factual circumstances that would go into consideration of whether a claimant is ...


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