Nancy Heinonen, Relator, vs. Student Experience LLC Respondent, Department of Employment and Economic Development, Respondent.Annotate this Case
This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480 A. 08, subd. 3 (2006).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALSA06-2023
Student Experience LLC
Department of Employment and Economic Development,
Filed October 16, 2007
Department of Employment and Economic Development
File No. 1058 06
Nancy A. Heinonen, 808 Winter Street, Superior, WI 54880-1846 (pro se relator)
Rochelle Nelson Wodarz, Student Experience LLC, 2595 Hamline Avenue North, Roseville, MN 55113-3168 (respondent employer)
Lee B. Nelson, Department of Employment and Economic Development, First National Bank Building, 332 Minnesota Street, Suite E200, St. Paul, MN 55101-1351 (for respondent Department)
Considered and decided by Kalitowski, Presiding Judge; Worke, Judge; and Ross, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
Nancy Heinonen challenges an unemployment law judge's determination that she quit her employment with Student Experience LLC and is therefore disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits. We must decide whether the employment ended on a quit or a discharge. Because Student Experience's statements to Heinonen would lead a reasonable employee to believe that she was no longer qualified to continue as an employee of Student Experience, the termination was a discharge, and we reverse.FACTS
Student Experience LLC employed Nancy Heinonen from October 2003 through May 2006 as a personal-care attendant. Heinonen joined Student Experience to provide care for her 16-year-old granddaughter, who was a Student Experience client. Heinonen never worked for any other clients of Student Experience.
Heinonen's employment at Student Experience resulted from a unique arrangement. Student Experience hired Heinonen after Heinonen's daughter, Cindy Looker, requested that Student Experience provide care for Looker's developmentally challenged child. At the time, Student Experience employed only students as personal-care attendants. But Looker arranged for Student Experience to waive that requirement to hire Heinonen, a nonstudent, because of Heinonen's familial relationship to the child. Looker relayed the company's waiver decision to Heinonen, including the fact that Heinonen could work for no other Student Experience clients. The Student Experience representative who hired Heinonen also informed her that she could not work with other clients because of the company's students-only policy. The representative explained to her that her employment arose from a specific waiver of policy that would apply only to her granddaughter. Heinonen's day-to-day duties did not involve direct contact with Student Experience managers. Rather, her direction came from Looker, whom Student Experience viewed as its "point person" concerning the child's care.
There is no significant factual dispute about the circumstances leading to the end of Heinonen's employment at Student Experience. Student Experience's relationship to Looker's child ended when the Department of Human Services terminated the child's medical-assistance funding. Looker notified Student Experience and Heinonen that the child would no longer be a Student Experience client. Heinonen did not discuss the implications of this with Student Experience, but she relied on the company's prior communication to conclude that, as a nonstudent, she was no longer qualified for employment. But sometime in the winter of 2005-06, Student Experience had changed its policy to lift its restriction against nonstudents being employed as personal-care attendants. It had not communicated this change to Looker or to Heinonen, who had no further communication with the company until she sought unemployment benefits. The mutual lack of communication is significant; according to the testimony of the company's representative, Student Experience had other clients it would have assigned to Heinonen, and Heinonen testified that she would have accepted another assignment.
The Department of Employment and Economic Development found that Heinonen was discharged from her employment and was qualified to receive unemployment benefits. Student Experience appealed, and, after a hearing, an unemployment law judge (ULJ) affirmed that Heinonen did not quit her employment and was discharged and entitled to benefits. But on further review, the ULJ reconsidered and reversed his decision, determining Heinonen to be disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits based on her failure to ask the company if she could serve any of its other clients. This certiorari appeal follows.
D E C I S I O N
By writ of certiorari, Heinonen challenges the ULJ's reconsidered determination. This court will reverse or modify a ULJ's decision if the employee's substantial rights were prejudiced because the ULJ's findings, inferences, conclusions, or decisions are unconstitutional, exceed statutory authority or jurisdiction, result from unlawful procedure, are affected by an error of law, are unsupported by substantial evidence in the record, or are arbitrary or capricious. Minn. Stat. § 268.145, subd. 7(d) (Supp. 2005). Whether an employee is disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits is a mixed question of law and fact. Schmidgall v. FilmTec Corp., 644 N.W.2d 801, 804 (Minn. 2002).
Heinonen contends that the ULJ erred by determining that she quit without good reason caused by Student Experience rather than that she was discharged from her employment. A person who quits employment without a good reason caused by the employer is disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits. Minn. Stat. § 268.095, subd. 1(1) (Supp. 2005). In contrast, a discharged employee qualifies for unemployment benefits unless the employee was discharged for employment misconduct. Id., subd. 4 (2004). Whether an employee quit or was discharged is a question of fact. Shanahan v. Dist. Mem'l. Hosp., 495 N.W.2d 894, 896 (Minn. App. 1993). But the construction of a statute is a legal question, which we review de novo. Rowe v. Dep't of Employment and Econ. Dev., 704 N.W.2d 191, 194 (Minn. App. 2005).
The record does not support the ULJ's finding that Heinonen quit her employment. A quit occurs when the employee makes the decision to end employment. Minn. Stat. § 268.095, subd. 2(a) (2004). A discharge occurs when an employer's words or actions would lead a reasonable employee to believe that she is no longer allowed to work for the employer in any capacity. Id., subd. 5(a) (2004). Without dispute, Student Experience conveyed its students-only hiring policy directly to Heinonen and did nothing to inform her of its policy change. It told Heinonen that the company had waived the condition to allow her to care for her daughter's child only and that this waiver would not apply to other clients. The company's words and actions plainly meet the statutory description of a discharge because they informed Heinonen that her employment would end when the company's client relationship with Looker's child ended. See Whitehead v. Moonlight Nursing Care, Inc., 529 N.W.2d 350, 351-53 (Minn. App. 1995) (holding that employee did not quit employment and was not disqualified from unemployment benefits when company told her it had no more work and gave her no offer of continued employment).
But the ULJ ruled that Heinonen quit because "a reasonable employee who wanted to continue working would have asked about the possibility of working for other clients." This finding rests essentially on the legal premise that once an employer communicates by words or actions that the employee is no longer allowed to work, the employee quits if she fails to ask if the employer has changed its mind. This premise adds a requirement not contemplated by the statute by misconstruing how "reasonableness" applies. The ULJ's conclusion that if Heinonen were a reasonable employee she "would have asked about the possibility of working for other clients" after Student Experience had already told her unequivocally that there would be no such possibility confuses reasonableness with prudence. The statute indicates that a discharge occurs when the employer plainly tells the employee that she is discharged or communicates in a way that would lead a reasonable person to conclude that she is discharged. It may be that a prudent employee would attempt to persuade her employer to change its mind about its expressly stated condition of employment, or ask whether it has already changed its mind about that condition. But that sort of "reasonable" inquiry does not bear on the controlling issue of reasonableness under the statute, which is whether the employee reasonably understood the employer to have communicated the occurrence of a discharge.
Student Experience told Heinonen that her continued employment depended entirely on her opportunity to serve a specific client and that Student Experience would not employ her in the service of any other clients. There was therefore but one reasonable conclusion to be drawn about Heinonen's employment status once Student Experience lost the single client upon which the company had expressly conditioned her employment. This is so even if it would have been prudent for Heinonen to ask Student Experience to remove the condition or whether it already had. It turns out that Student Experience had changed its policy concerning that condition, but it did so without informing Heinonen, and she therefore had no reason to believe that her conditional employment at Student Experience continued after the company lost its only condition-satisfying client.
The ULJ's determination that Heinonen quit her employment is not supported by substantial evidence because it is affected by a misconstruction of law. Because a reasonable employee in Heinonen's position would have believed that she was no longer allowed to work for Student Experience based on its unequivocal and unretracted statements to her, Heinonen was discharged from employment and is not disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits.