New Jersey employment laws protect the rights of employees in a wide range of areas, including workers’ right to unemployment compensation, subject to various conditions. State agencies and the courts are charged with ensuring that employers and the state fairly apply the rules regarding eligibility for unemployment compensation. The New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, recently invalidated part of a rule adopted by the state’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development (LWD). The challenged rule defined “misconduct,” in the context of unemployment, in a way that the court found “arbitrary and capricious.” In re N.J.A.C. 12:17-2.1, No. A-4636-14T3, slip op. at 3 (N.J. App., May 1, 2017). A consistent definition of “simple misconduct,” the court held, is required to protect workers’ rights.
The New Jersey Unemployment Compensation Law (UCL) states that eligible individuals shall receive benefits for a set period of time after they become “unemployed,” within the meaning established by the statute. See N.J. Rev. Stat. §§ 43:21-3, 43:21-19(m)(1). Benefits are paid from an unemployment insurance program funded by payroll tax deductions and employer contributions. In order to obtain benefits, an individual must file a claim with LWD. See N.J. Rev. Stat. §§ 43:21-4, 43:21-6.
An individual may be disqualified from eligibility for unemployment benefits if they were “suspended or discharged for misconduct” by their previous employer. Id. at § 43:21-5(b). The employer has the opportunity to respond to a former employee’s unemployment claim, including with allegations of misconduct. The statute identifies three levels of “misconduct”: simple, severe, and gross misconduct. The challenged LWD rule, codified at N.J.A.C. 12:17-2.1, defines the three levels of misconduct.