On February 28, 2019, the ACLU of New Jersey submitted an amicus brief in this appeal of a final agency decision denying unemployment benefits. The case involves a man who was incarcerated pretrial for 55 days in Essex and then released after the grand jury failed to indict. Although all charges were dropped, by the time he was released from jail he had lost his job and his apartment. Mr. Haley filed for unemployment benefits thereafter but was denied because the DOL considered his departure from work to have been voluntary. Our brief explains that when an employer terminates an employee because he is incarcerated pretrial, the employee cannot be said to have voluntarily quit. We make a statutory interpretation argument, emphasizing that the threshold question is whether the departure is voluntary. In addition to the legal arguments, the brief examines how the remedial purpose of the Unemployment Compensation Law is disserved by disqualifying people from unemployment benefits on the basis of pretrial incarceration. We argue that treating pretrial incarceration as voluntary or otherwise equating it with fault undermines the presumption of innocence and that denying benefits to formerly incarcerated people increases the already substantial barriers to reentry.
On January 27, 2020, the Appellate Division issued its opinion in which it affirmed the lower court’s decision against Mr. Haley, concluding that the decision to deny him unemployment benefits was not contrary to the Unemployment Compensation Law. On February 24, 2020, Mr. Haley filed a petition for certification with the New Jersey Supreme Court.
On March 17, 2021, the Court issued its opinion – a real victory for Mr. Haley – and reversing the courts below, held that “[p]retrial detention is not an absolute bar to receiving unemployment compensation benefits” and that the Department of Labor was required by the relevant statutes to review the totality of the circumstances to determine whether Mr. Haley “left work voluntarily.”