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In re Goewert

filed: July 22, 1996.


Superior Court County: King. Superior Court Cause No: 94-2-19500-0. Date filed in Superior Court: March 28, 1995. Superior Court Judge Signing: Norman Quinn.

Written by: Grosse, J. Concurred by: Agid, J., Ellington, J.

Author: Grosse

GROSSE, J. -- Terrence J. Goewert appeals the trial court's reversal of the grant of unemployment benefits by the Commissioner of the Employment Security Department of the State of Washington (the commissioner) after Goewert retired because he feared his employer, Anheuser Busch, Inc. (Anheuser), would eventually lay him off. We affirm, holding that Goewert voluntarily quit because Anheuser did not announce a layoff or reduction-in-force within the meaning of applicable administrative procedures and, accordingly, Goewert is disqualified for benefits because he voluntarily left his employment without good cause.

Terrence Goewert worked for Anheuser from February 22, 1984 until December 31, 1993, when he retired. On September 23, 1993, Anheuser announced its intention to reduce the number of its salaried administrative staff by 10 percent by late 1994. At the same time, in order to facilitate achieving the 10 percent goal, Anheuser offered an enhanced early retirement program for employees aged 53 years and over. The deadline to apply for the program was November 18, 1993. If a 10 percent reduction was not achieved by late 1994 through employee participation in the retirement program, Anheuser stated that it would institute involuntary terminations in order to meet the goal.

Goewert worked as a salaried regional sales manager in Anheuser's military division. Goewert feared Anheuser would eliminate his department in response to military base closures around the country. Concerned about his future job security, Goewert repeatedly attempted to find out from Anheuser whether he would be laid off. Unable to provide any answers or reassurances, Anheuser could not guarantee him a job before the deadline to decide about retirement. Because Goewert thought his job would be eliminated and because he would not be able to benefit from the program after November 18, 1993, he elected to retire. Goewert received a check for $197,819.28 on December 31, 1993.

By offering early retirement Anheuser successfully reduced its salaried work force by approximately 12 percent. Anheuser did not have to lay off any employees. The company dissolved its military department and merged it with its retail sales department. The commissioner found that Goewert would not have been laid off.

Actively seeking employment, Goewert sought and was granted unemployment benefits. Anheuser asked for review. The Office for Administrative Hearings determined that Goewert was eligible for benefits. The commissioner affirmed, concluding that Goewert did not voluntarily quit under WAC 192-16-070. Anheuser appealed to superior court. The court reversed, ruling RCW 50.20.050 disqualified Goewert from receiving benefits because he left work voluntarily without good cause. Goewert appeals.

Generally, unemployed workers are eligible for benefits unless they are disqualified by statute.*fn1 Under RCW 50.20.050(1), a worker is disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits if the commissioner determines he or she voluntarily leaves work without good cause. In making this determination:

The commissioner shall only consider work-connected factors such as the degree of risk involved to the individual's health, safety, and morals, the individual's physical fitness for the work, the individual's ability to perform the work, and such other work connected factors as the commissioner may deem pertinent, including state and national emergencies.*fn2

The commissioner interprets RCW 50.20.050(3) to require an employee to establish good cause by showing: (1) that the employee left because of work-connected factors; (2) that the factors were sufficiently compelling to cause a reasonably prudent person to terminate employment; and (3) that the employee exhausted all reasonable alternatives (but the employee need not perform futile acts).*fn3

If an "'agency has erroneously interpreted or applied the law,'" its decision may be overturned.*fn4 The term "left work voluntarily" as used in RCW 50.20.050 is a legal term which we may independently construe.*fn5 Since the only issue presented is one of law, our review is de novo.

The commissioner evaluated Goewert's claim under a commissioner's interpretative regulation, WAC 192-16-070. Under this regulation, an employee is not disqualified from unemployment benefits if the employee volunteers to be laid off after an employer announces a layoff or reduction-in-force and implements a plan to lay off specific employees. WAC 192-16-070 provides:

A layoff or reduction-in-force will not be considered to be a voluntary quit ...

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