In late December, attorney Alan Schorr argued as amicus before the New Jersey Supreme Court on behalf of the National Employment Lawyers Association. Clarence Haley, a maintenance worker at Garden State Laboratories, Inc., had been wrongly arrested and incarcerated for two months lost his job while in jail. Even though all charges were dropped, the Department of Labor ruled that he had voluntarily quit his job and denied his unemployment benefits as a result. Mr. Haley was represented by Professor Jennifer B. Condon of Seton Hall. Professor Condon, Mr. Schorr, and an attorney for the ACLU successfully argued against the Department of Labor’s denial of benefits, which had been upheld by an appellate court. –
Mr. Schorr’s argument to the court centered on what he called a “gross miscarriage of justice” that interpreted wrongful incarceration on charges that included kidnapping, robbery, burglary, unlawful possession of a weapon and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose as a voluntary departure from work. Mr. Haley had been denied pretrial release, and despite his mother repeatedly and diligently requesting that her employer hold his job for him, and personnel files that praised him as “hardworking, conscientious and enthusiastic,” he was fired and then considered disqualified from unemployment benefits.
In arguing that inappropriate case law had been applied to Mr. Haley’s situation, Mr. Schorr pointed out that New Jersey is the only state whose laws permit victims of wrongful incarceration to be denied unemployment benefits, and his words clearly made an impression on the justices, who held that N.J.A.C. 12:17-9.1(e)(10) is not a per se disqualification for incarceration, and that the Department of Labor was required to hold a hearing to determine whether Haley had actually voluntarily quit. Though it was disappointing that the decision did not result in a reversal, only going so far as to remand for a new hearing, there is every expectation that the decision will eventually be reversed.
In an additional disappointment, the court refused to overturn a previous decision on a case involving a plaintiff who had been wrongfully incarcerated for 9 months. In refusing to equate the two cases, Justice Solomon wrote an opinion that raised the ire of Justice Albin, whose dissent was caustic. Among the most notable aspects of his remarks were, “Only in the language of administrative doublespeak can a wrongful incarceration equate to an employee voluntarily leaving his job.”; “Logic and equity suggest that the longer the period of an employee’s wrongful detention, the less likely an employer will maintain the position for him, and therefore the greater the justification for unemployment benefits. I do not see the sense in a scheme that says that the greater the injustice to the wronged employee, the less relief available to him.”; “Whether a worker loses his job -- through no fault of his own -- because his pretrial detention is two months, nine months, or twenty months should not change the equation.”; “And how much more time must Haley expend in pursuit of unemployment benefits to which he is already entitled?”
Justice Albin also reflected on arguments made by the ACLU regarding how the case tied in to larger arguments about racial injustice. The justice wrote, “We cannot escape the reality that significant racial disparities persist in arrests in our state. As amicus curiae ACLU has pointed out, denying unemployment benefits to those wrongfully detained will likely disproportionately impact people of color and further exacerbate racial inequities in employment and wealth. That certainly is not an outcome consistent with the beneficent purposes of the UCL.”
Speaking of Mr. Haley’s victory in the case, Alan Schorr said, “This hard-fought case represents an important victory for fairness and justice.”