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Sabatino v. Steptoe & Johnson, PLLC

Supreme Court of West Virginia

September 1, 2017

Coleen D. Sabatino, Petitioner Below, Petitioner
Steptoe & Johnson, PLLC, Respondent Below, Respondent

         (Kanawha County 15-AA-104)


         Petitioner Coleen D. Sabatino, pro se, appeals the July 18, 2016, order of the Circuit Court of Kanawha County affirming a July 27, 2015, order of the Board of Review of Workforce West Virginia that disqualified petitioner from receiving unemployment benefits. Respondent Steptoe & Johnson, PLLC, by counsel Larry J. Rector, filed a response in support of the circuit court's order. Petitioner filed a reply.

         The Court has considered the parties' briefs and the record on appeal. The facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. Upon consideration of the standard of review, the briefs, and the record presented, the Court finds no substantial question of law and no prejudicial error. For these reasons, a memorandum decision affirming the circuit court's order is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         Petitioner worked as a legal secretary for respondent, a law firm, in its Bridgeport, West Virginia, office from December 1, 2014, until March 18, 2015. From her first day of employment, petitioner was dissatisfied with her treatment by respondent. Petitioner states that her orientation was deficient in that respondent's office manager failed to give her a tour of the office, failed to tell her where the restroom was, and failed to show her the location of the offices of the attorney and the paralegal for whom she would be working.

         Petitioner also complains that respondent placed her on a performance improvement plan ("PIP") for insufficient justification in February of 2015.[1] Shortly thereafter, petitioner was hospitalized for an illness from February 17, 2015, to February 20, 2015. [2] Following her hospitalization, work restrictions required petitioner to be placed on light duty and her work release noted that she "may be abnormally fatigued for up to three weeks related to [her] current condition." Respondent believed that petitioner's position was already light duty; however, respondent extended petitioner's PIP twice "in fairness to [her]" given the time petitioner missed because of her hospitalization.

         Finally, petitioner alleges that the paralegal for whom she worked did not cooperate in helping to get petitioner's work done and that the coworkers with whom she shared an office were a distraction to her because they did not concentrate on their jobs and disseminated "falsehoods and sophomoric details" about her to the office manager. Consequently, by letter dated March 15, 2015, petitioner requested a reassignment to another paralegal and to be moved to another office space. Respondent denied petitioner's requests by letter dated March 17, 2015. Respondent first stated that petitioner's assigned paralegal behaved professionally toward petitioner and gave petitioner "every benefit of doubt" when asked about the quality of petitioner's work. Respondent concluded that petitioner needed to communicate better with the paralegal instead of being assigned to another paralegal. With regard to the behavior of respondent's coworkers, respondent found that she did not raise that issue until her March 15, 2015, letter and that "[a]ll secretaries in the office work in the same environment" as petitioner. However, for reasons apparently not related to this case, respondent relocated one coworker petitioner complained of to another office.

         Respondent's March 17, 2015, letter also extended petitioner's PIP until March 27, 2015, "at which time a decision will be made about [petitioner's] future employment with [respondent]." The following day, March 18, 2015, petitioner cleaned out her desk and left a letter on her desk, stating that she was resigning from her position "effective immediately."

         Petitioner applied for unemployment benefits on April 20, 2015, stating that she quit her job because she felt that "[she] was going to be fired" and did not want the termination to show on her employment history. Petitioner stated that she attempted to "resolve the situation" with her job difficulties and to do her job to the best of her ability. Though petitioner admitted to absenteeism, she attributed it "to health reasons beyond [her] control." Petitioner further stated that she was "able, available[, ] and seeking full-time work." By a decision dated April 29, 2015, a deputy commissioner of Workforce West Virginia denied petitioner's application for benefits on the ground that she quit work voluntarily without good cause involving fault on the part of respondent.

         Petitioner appealed the deputy commissioner's decision, and an administrative hearing was held on May 29, 2015. The administrative law judge ("ALJ") admitted petitioner's April 20, 2015, statement; an April 22, 2015, request for separation information filled out by respondent; and the deputy commissioner's April 29, 2015, decision as exhibits. Petitioner requested the admission into evidence of the work release completed by a physician's assistant following her hospitalization, which the ALJ granted. Respondent sought the admission of (1) the March 15, 2015, letter, in which petitioner requested a reassignment to another paralegal and to be moved to another office; (2) the March 17, 2015, letter, in which respondent denied those requests; (3) the March 18, 2015, letter in which petitioner resigned "effective immediately"; (4) a March 23, 2015, letter from petitioner to respondent, in which she took issue with the statements contained in respondent's March 17, 2015, letter; and (5) a timeline of petitioner's employment prepared by respondent. The ALJ admitted both the letters and the timeline.[3]

         In addition to the documentary evidence, petitioner and respondent's director of employee relations testified at the May 29, 2015 hearing. At the beginning of her testimony, petitioner appeared hesitant and also noted that the hearing had been scheduled only for thirty minutes. The ALJ advised petitioner that, regardless of how long the hearing was scheduled to last, he would "take as much time as necessary for [her] to have a full, fair hearing." Thereafter, the ALJ repeatedly asked petitioner whether she felt limited in how long she had to testify. During one of those exchanges, the ALJ reassured petitioner that he wanted her to tell him everything that she felt was important for him "to make a fair decision regardless of how long it [took her]." Also, following the admission of the timeline of petitioner's employment prepared by respondent, the ALJ allowed petitioner to testify as to what she felt were inaccuracies in that exhibit.

         During petitioner's testimony, she confirmed that (1) from the day she started working for respondent, she "felt that [she] was not given a fair shot"; (2) respondent granted two extensions of her PIP because of her hospitalization; and (3) she and her coworkers had a lot of "personal conflict." The ALJ asked petitioner whether she felt that she resigned or was terminated. Petitioner answered, "I quit." The ALJ inquired whether petitioner quit "voluntarily." Petitioner responded, "I did." However, petitioner further testified that, if she did not quit her job, she believed that respondent would have fired her. Consequently, the ALJ asked petitioner whether "any supervisor or manager [told her that she was] going to be discharged." Petitioner stated that no one told her that she was going to be terminated, but that she was left with the impression that respondent wanted to fire her. However, petitioner admitted that the last extension of her PIP occurred on March 17, 2015, the day before she quit.

         Respondent's employee relations director testified that, because petitioner worked for only one attorney (who also had a legal secretary at his other office) and one paralegal, she had a light workload in comparison to other legal secretaries employed by respondent. The employee relations director further testified that petitioner's PIP addressed issues of performance, organization, and attendance. However, the ALJ limited the testimony of the employee relations director regarding petitioner's level of compliance with her PIP because the parties agreed that petitioner voluntarily quit her job (instead of being terminated by respondent) and because petitioner never testified that the issues that she had with respondent and her coworkers involved discrimination against her based on status such as gender or age.[4]

         In a decision dated June 1, 2015, the ALJ noted petitioner's personal problems with her coworkers and her assigned paralegal, and the statement contained in her work release stating that, following her hospitalization, she could become "abnormally fatigued." The ALJ specifically addressed petitioner's health by finding that, if she felt "abnormally fatigued" or overwhelmed, she never raised that concern with respondent. The ALJ further found that petitioner had a light workload for a legal secretary because petitioner worked for only one attorney (who also had a legal secretary at his other office) and one paralegal. With regard to petitioner's contention that she quit her job in anticipation of being terminated, the ALJ found that "the evidence supports a finding that [respondent] did not desire to discharge [petitioner]" because respondent extended petitioner's PIP "on two separate occasions." Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that petitioner was disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits, pursuant to West Virginia Code § 21A-6-3(1) because she quit work voluntarily, without good cause involving fault on the part of respondent, by "[leaving] a written resignation on her desk on March 18, 2015."

         Petitioner appealed the ALJ's June 1, 2015, decision to the Board of Review of Workforce West Virginia ("Board"). On June 21, 2015, petitioner filed a motion with the Board requesting a remand for an additional hearing with a different ALJ because she was "cut off" at the May 29, 2015, hearing before she could present necessary evidence. By order entered on July 27, 2015, the Board adopted the ALJ's decision in its entirety and denied petitioner's motion because she failed to show good cause for a remand. Petitioner appealed that order to the Circuit Court of Kanawha County, which affirmed the Board's decision by order entered on July 18, 2016. The circuit court determined that the ALJ properly found that petitioner quit her job voluntarily without good cause involving fault on the part of respondent and that the Board properly denied petitioner's request for a remand ...

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