Making factual findings subject to never-ending review: Wisconsin Bell

In Wisconsin Bell, an employee with bi-polar disorder asked to be off work temporarily because his anxiety was triggering a mental breakdown. The employer did not believe the request was legitimate, however, and dismissed the employee for shirking.

The employee presented copious evidence about his disability, while the employer simply asserted it did not believe him. Unfortunately for the employer, an administrative law judge and the Commission found that the employee’s disability and mental breakdown to be credible, and so the employer’s dismissal for that disability constituted a discriminatory discharge.

The original petition for review from Wisconsin Bell concerned a legal question over the status and proper use of a legal theory for determining an intent to discriminate called the “inference” method. But, baked into any examination of the inference method is most likely an examination of the the evidence in the record, and in this case that examination will almost certainly include the credibility of witness testimony.

Here, the employer is claiming that it discharged an employee because it did not believe the disability claims of its employee and instead concluded he was shirking. The administrative law judge and the Commission, on the other hand, found that employee to be quite credible in contrast to the rather in-credible employer claims.

So, this legal dispute over the “inference” method when coupled to the question of agency deference that the Wisconsin Supreme Court added to this case essentially opens up findings of fact to constant review up the appellate ladder. In other words, the deference at issue in this case is to the factual findings and credibility determinations of the agency.

This factual review by courts — even a supreme court — is explicitly included in the attack on agency deference. Philip Hamburger’s, Is Administrative Law Unlawful? specifically concludes that a proper and constitutional separation of powers requires courts to do their own fact-finding regardless of any fact-finding by a state agency. He writes:

Whereas judges once heard independent actions against executive officers, they now are the final participants in an appeals process that oversees administrative agencies. The result is that administrators feel liberated from the constraints of law, and judges feel bound to make the administrative system work.

Hamburger, Is Administrative Law Unlawful? at 304. For Hamburger, the deferral to administrative agencies contrasts mightily with rights to constitutional due process and an independent judiciary obligated to follow the law and not the whims of the executive branch. Whatever technical matters are at stake in an administrative proceeding, Hamburger reasons, those technical matters also involve political questions that are appropriately decided legislatively and judicially rather than through an executive. Id. at 314. As a result, trial court judges who defer to administrative fact-finding, according to Hamburger, abandon their constitutional obligations and prejudice the judicial review in favor of the administrative agency. Id. at 317-18.

So, Wisconsin Bell presents the Wisconsin Supreme Court with the opportunity to make judicial fact-finding part-and-parcel of the judicial review process at every step of the appellate process.

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Beres: Agency discretion to undo a statutory scheme

In Beres, the case turns on a dispute between the Department and the Commission over whose interpretation of the absenteeism disqualification is most reasonable. In its quest to get its interpretation adopted, the Department is willing to subject all agency decision-making to heightened scrutiny.

Taking effect in January 2014, Wis. Stat. § 108.04(5)(e) provides that a claimant will be disqualified for misconduct when an employee is absent “on more than 2 occasions within the 120 day period before the date of the employee’s termination, unless otherwise specified by his or her employer.”

The employer nursing home in Beres apparently took advantage of the “unless otherwise specified by his or her employer” provision and had an attendance policy which indicated that employees would be terminated for a single absence during their 90-day probationary period if they were a no call, no show. The claimant in this case, Ms. Beres, was extremely ill and did not report to work or call in her absence. The employer called her home, and her spouse indicated that she was too sick to work. The employer then terminated her employment, and the Department denied her claim for unemployment benefits as misconduct because of absenteeism.

So, unlike the long-standing statute being applied in a new situation at issue in TetraTech, the statute in question in Beres is brand new, poorly drafted, and in conflict with what was originally proposed. See Beres, part 1. The language in question literally makes no sense for purposes of unemployment law. Cf. Wis. Stat. § 108.01.

Confronted with this nonsensical provision, the Commission reasonably concluded that the “unless otherwise” provision for an employer absenteeism policy cannot set a threshold lower than the statutory “more than two absences in 120 days.” Because the claimant in Beres was not responsible for her illness and a single illness did not meet the threshold disqualification of more than two absences within 120 days, the Commission explained, she was NOT disqualified. See Absenteeism decision excludes zero-tolerance policy as misconduct (8 Match 2017) for discussion of the court of appeals decision.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court is now considering this case alongside the question of what level of deference is constitutionally and statutorily due. At the court of appeals (which sided with the Commission 2-1), due weight deference was given the Commission’s position. Under this standard, the court would only affirm the Commission if there was NO other reasonable interpretation proffered.

So, there is no reason per se in this case to create a new deference standard. The justices will find either the Commission or the Department interpretation of the absenteeism to be the reasonable one.

But, there is a long-game for what the Department is doing in this case. If there is no more “great weight” deference given to long-standing Commission interpretations, then the Department (along with all employers and employees) can challenge any and all of the Commission’s prior precedents. The Commission will need to defend its prior decisions as the most reasonable interpretation available rather than relying on their previously established reasonableness to stop the challenge in its tracks.

And, the first target of this attack will certainly be on the Commission’s unemployment concealment decisions that mandate the alleged unemployment fraud in question be intentional rather than accidental. As noted numerous times here, the Department and the Commission have been at odds on this issue since 2014, and the dispute led in 2017 to the Department pushing for the elimination of the Commission in the state budget.

Finally, if the court should agree with the Department and find that an employer gets to set an absenteeism disqualification based on a single absence regardless of reason, then the court will essentially be creating a disqualification that swallows all of unemployment law. Under the Department’s interpretation, any employer can replicate this “single absence provides the basis for a discharge” provision and then apply this disqualification whenever an employee is absent in order to keep an employee from receiving any unemployment benefits connected to that employer. The limited misconduct disqualification that should never apply when employees lose work through no fault of their own essentially becomes a no-fault disqualification for absenteeism.

And, an employer has much to gain from this board disqualification. Whenever there is a finding of misconduct in Wisconsin unemployment law, the employee guilty of that misconduct loses all of his or her income from the employer for determining both current and future benefit year eligibility for unemployment benefits. Hence, this broad reading of the absenteeism provision enables an employer to discharge employees for misconduct purposes for any of their absences and thereby insulate itself from ever having its experience rating increased.

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TetraTech: Agency discretion and “process”

The alleged problems with regulation and administrative agencies is exemplified in the TetraTech case. In this tax matter, the dispute concerns how expansive for tax purposes a statutory reference to “process” should be read. A company, TetraTech, was responsible for “processing” contaminated water as part of an effort to clean the Fox River of pollutants. Wis. Stat. § 77.52(2)(a)11 (emphasis supplied) provides that “[t]he producing, fabricating, processing, printing, or imprinting of tangible personal property or items, property, or goods” for materials either directly or indirectly provided to consumers shall be taxed.

As obvious, “processing” is an incredibly broad term. Writing a brief can be considered a process that transforms the paper on which the brief is printed, for instance. So, the main question presented in this case is how broadly or narrowly the court should understand “processing.” Since the revenue statutes in question do not define “processing” and the term itself is extremely broad, this kind of case calls for the kind of court intervention to clarify exactly how “processing” should be understood.

That is, this kind of case contains a bread-and-butter question courts typically address whenever reviewing how a statute should be understood. There is nothing here that indicates that a substantial change in agency deference is needed in order to resolve this dispute. The Wisconsin Supreme Court could hold that the Department of Revenue has the correct, broad interpretation of “processing” and decide to defer to it or even not defer to it but support it in any case. Or, the court could conclude that the current agency interpretation is NOT a reasonable application of the law and overturn that finding. Or, the court could do any number of things in between these two outcomes. A company like TetraTech certainly would want the interpretation of “processing” adopted by the Department of Revenue to get no deference. But, whether there is deference or not does not automatically lead to TetraTech getting the outcome it desires, especially when this case presents a very typical scenario of an extremely broad statutory term that requires clarification. Only if there already had been a similar case with similar facts to this one would the court even consider deferring to the administrative agency. But, the briefs indicate that this case presents a unique situation — processing of river silt to remove the contaminants as part of an environmental clean-up effort — that does not appear to have ever been contemplated by the agency of the legislature.

So, the question of agency deference does not really add anything to this case other than to provide an opportunity to expound on the separation of powers between administrative agencies and courts. The interpretation of the statutory term itself presents the kind of statutory construction work courts have to confront day-in and day-out. While the court of appeals decision granted great weight deference to the Department of Revenue, the appeals court still conducted a full analysis of the statutory terms and arguments to determine that the agency’s proffered interpretation was reasonable. The Wisconsin Supreme Court could easily disagree with any of the conclusions reach by the court of appeals and consequently issue a decision in favor of TetraTech.

But, this kind of point-by-point review is exactly what is at stake here. The attack on agency deference is about a court coming up with its OWN interpretation of the law without first considering whatsoever the interpretation of the state agency. Only after the court has its own interpretation is the court supposed to examine the agency’s proffered interpretation.

In this light, a non-deference court is subjecting state agencies to heightened scrutiny of some kind, as the court gets to decide what the statute means and the agency’s interpretation must then match up with what the court considers correct more so than what the opposing side posits. The court is no longer just deciding a legal dispute between parties. Instead, the court is exercising policy-making discretion to determine how administrative agencies should develop their administrative rules and decisions.

And, as noted already, the justices pushing this agenda are adding an additional concern for “liberty interests” that are NOT part of the statutory language but which were part and parcel of the court attack against regulation under modern Lochnerism. Under this modern version of Lochnerism, any regulation of commercial activity is automatically suspect because of how it infringes on the liberty interests of commercial enterprise.

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Beres and agency deference, Part 2

In three cases set for oral argument on December 1st — TetraTech v. DOR, Appeal No. 2015AP2019, DWD v. LIRC (Beres), Appeal No. 2016AP1365, and Wisconsin Bell, Inc. v. LIRC, Appeal No. 2016AP355 — the Wisconsin Supreme Court is re-considering the whole field of agency deference in what could be a legal revolution that up-ends modern governance.

In a previous post, I described the statutory text at issue in Beres, the unemployment case among the three. Here, I want to deal directly with why the Wisconsin Supreme Court might scuttle agency deference and what is at stake in such an event.

Why agency decision-making is being questioned

The decisions of administrative agencies are the building block for modern government. In 19th-century America, there was no government bureaucracy available for enforcing much of anything. There were no requirements for food to be safe to eat, for instance, or for protecting worker safety. Cities had water and sewer services that in some instances were collectively run or in other instances were operated by private companies. But, outside of police, there were little to any regulations for: (1) how public services were to be provided or (2) how private companies and individuals could interact with each other. Hence, snake oil salesmen abounded, and companies and individuals could do what they want with the land they owned and the people they hired.

The modern world we know today is built on the idea that there needs to be some organization to how businesses and people interact. Health and building codes are needed to prevent cows from starting fires that burn entire cities to the ground or to stop epidemics and food poisoning from becoming rampant. And, safety and health and other regulations are needed to make sure people get paid the wages promised them, that companies sell the products they proffer, and that products and workplaces are generally safe for workers and the public in general.

As modern living has grown more complex, so has the scope and complexity of the administrative agencies needed to regulate the interactions among people and among people and companies. The legislatures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that created these administrative agencies recognized this complexity of modern life. The administrative agencies that were created were not only literally drafted into existence by these laws, but these agencies also were given the responsibility and power to manage these laws through the regulations the agencies issued. As such, these agencies took on this combination of responsibilities and authority that joined legislative, executive, and even judicial functions together because the complicated reasoning and scope of their actions (like setting safety standards or usage rates that would apply across thousands of different companies and types of businesses) needed this combination of actions simply in order to function.

NOTE: Courts were initially reluctant to follow along with these legislative endeavors and struck many of them down as violations of individual liberty to contract (what become known as Lochnerism, after a famous case with that name). Eventually, judges realized that modern living required legislative regulation to some extent of that ‘liberty.’ More on *Lochnerism below.*

Unemployment was one such effort to overcome the problem of individual companies laying people off. Layoffs could easily accelerate a decline in economic growth when the laid-off workers lacked monies for rent and groceries and thus turned an economic decline into a recession or even a depression.

Today, to accomplish this legislative goal in unemployment matters, the Department of Workforce Development drafts and publishes regulations that fill in the details of the unemployment laws passed by the state legislature and Congress. The Department is also charged with handling investigations into unemployment claims, managing the unemployment taxes paid by employers, and “helping” claimants understand the unemployment system and apply for unemployment benefits. Finally, the Department also has the judicial responsibility for running hearing offices that adjudicates employee and employer disputes over unemployment claims. In this way, the Department — an executive agency that exists as an arm of the governor — has legislative, executive, and judicial responsibilities.

Because the Department has so many responsibilities in the field of unemployment benefits, the Labor and Industry Commission is a second administrative agency that has judicial oversight of the Department: decisions by administrative law judges can be appealed to the Commission. Moreover, the Commission’s decisions in unemployment cases should provide guidance to the Department about how to manage the unemployment law and the Department’s regulations. Naturally, the Commission also has to create its own regulations to indicate how its judicial-like decision-making is administered. So, the Commission — an executive agency that is independent of the governor as the Commissioners serve set terms and cannot be removed from office except in limited circumstances — has judicial and legislative functions.

Keep in mind that all of this bureaucracy is intended to provide guidance and transparency into what these administrative agencies do and offer reasonably clear expectations into how unemployment benefits operate (at least, these are the goals).

But, the past forty or so years have seen a growing push against all of this bureaucracy connected to the “administrative state.” Rather than making the modern world easier to manage, the argument goes, bureaucracy has become over-grown and has started to strangle innovation and economic growth. In the last decade, these attacks exploded to become a diatribe against all regulation rather than targeted attacks against specific instances of over-regulation.

Moreover, in legal circles connected to the Federalist Society there has been a push to re-visit the earlier court decisions that accepted the existence and need for administrative agencies. The center-piece of this attack has been on the deference courts give to administrative agencies.

In Wisconsin, courts have generally granted administrative agencies “great weight” deference when the agency decision or action turns on a long-standing legal issue that the agency has addressed numerous times before. Under this standard, the court will affirm the agency interpretation if the court finds that interpretation reasonable or rationale. State agencies get “due weight” deference when the issue has previously been addressed by the administrative agency. Under this standard of deference, a court will affirm an agency interpretation if the court determines that there is no more reasonable interpretation available to the court. Finally, when the issue is a matter of first impression, the court will NOT defer to the agency at all.

The three justice concurrence in Operton called into question this deference standard. For them, great weight and even due weight deference could no longer be followed because:

  • courts are constitutionally and statutorily obligated to interpret statutes independent of any administrative agency,
  • the prevailing scheme of great weight and due weight deference hamstrings courts and thereby thwarts the constitutionally-mandated separation of powers,
  • the accumulation of legislative, executive, and judicial powers within a single administrative agency runs counter to the constitutional framework of dispersing governing power among the three separate branches of government, and
  • a judicial check is needed against executive interpretations that harm citizens’ liberty interests.

Operton (J. R.Bradley, concurring); see also Gillian E. Metzger, “Forward: 1930s Redux: The Administrative State Under Siege,” 131 Harv. L. Rev. 1 (Nov. 2017), for a detailed discussion of the history and current forms of this attack on the administrative state.

As these points from Operton demonstrate, this criticism of administrative agencies is built on a didactic view of the law: each branch has their own distinct set of prerogatives that cannot be mixed and that courts alone have the predominate and sole responsibility for judicial interpretation.

Operton, however, did not lead to a fundamental re-working of agency deference. While three justices supported this change, four justices either rejected this change outright or held that the time was not yet ripe for such a fundamental change in the law.

In TetraTech, Beres, and Wisconsin Bell, however, it appears that the time is now ripe for a fundamental change in agency deference. In each of these cases, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has added a question about agency deference.

Does the practice of deferring to agency interpretations of statutes comport with Article VII, Section 2 of the Wisconsin Constitution, which vests the judicial power in the unified court system?

Whether the administrative decision in each case represents some kind of administrative abuse that the court needs to correct, however, remains to be seen.

What is central to this push for a new standard of deference is the empowerment of courts and judges to decide on their own how state agencies should decide legal disputes. Before most of the modern administrative agencies existed, judges following Lochnerism claimed that economic qua constitutional rights based on “substantive due process” or “liberty of contract” overrode legislation that sought to regulate the conduct of corporations. For judges of this era, government could not show any favoritism or hostility to any class or special interest.

Over time, there was a recognition that this Lochnerism was allowing judges essentially to legislate economic outcomes from the bench, and even Conservative jurists lambasted these decisions as judicial gerrymandering of the law. The “neutrality” of Lochner judges was simply a mask to hide real intentions of judges to write their own policy preferences into the law.

The new assault of administrative law seen in Operton decries any connection to the Lochnerism of old. But, the emphasis on contractual liberty and the preeminence of judicial acumen over the reasonable discretion of administrative agencies belies any substantive distinction from Lochnerism of old. The attack on agency discretion at issue in these cases is little more than old wine in a new bottle. Certainly, some of the tenets of legal interpretation have changed (substantive due process is probably NOT going to be revived any time soon), but the basic objectives and tactics — economic and contractual liberty alongside basic doubts about any and all economic regulation — remain the foundation for empowering judges to insert their own policy preferences into the law.

TetraTech, Beres, and Wisconsin Bell are simply the front line of a revolution that could return governance to the days of 1890 when judges reigned supreme over legislators and the executive branch. The judges on the Wisconsin Supreme Court essentially want to return court jurisprudence to the time when judges got to determine economic winners and losers. As described in other posts, each of these cases has some clear winners and losers to pick from.

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Beres/absenteeism at the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Part 1

I previously described an Appeals Court decision in DWD v. LIRC (Beres), 2017 WI App 29, 375 Wis.2d 183, 895 N.W.2d 77, where the Department argued that a new definition of absenteeism qua misconduct allowed an employer unilaterally to determine a claimant’s eligibility for unemployment benefits by setting an employer that disqualified an employee for a single absence. In a 2-1 decision, the Court of Appeals concluded that such an outcome contradicted the entire point of unemployment law and sided with the Commission that the employer cannot define for itself what absenteeism will constitute misconduct.

The Department subsequently asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to get involved, and the state court accepted the invitation. Furthermore, the justices added this case to their push to re-examine the deference given administrative agencies.

In Operton v. LIRC, 2017 WI 46, 375 Wis.2d 1, 894 N.W.2d 426, three justices issued a concurrence calling into question whether judicial deference to administrative agencies violated the constitutionally-mandated separation of powers among the three branches of government.

In Beres and two other cases — TetraTech v. DOR, Appeal No. 2015AP2019, and Wisconsin Bell, Inc. v LIRC, Appeal No. 2016AP355 — the Wisconsin Supreme Court has decided to address the following question:

Does the practice of deferring to agency interpretations of statutes comport with Article VII, Section 2 of the Wisconsin Constitution, which vests the judicial power in the unified court system?

This question represents a RADICAL restructuring of jurisprudence that could essentially transform state court judges into super-legislators whose own preferences and desires supplant the reasoning and knowledge of state agencies and even their expert opinions and information-gathering. As such, this change is so fundamental that it requires its own separate, post to describe.

What first needs to be done, however, is to describe the statutory framework of the unemployment law at issue in Beres so that we at least have some idea of how we are getting to this fundamental re-thinking of administrative law in general.

Absenteeism as misconduct

At issue in Beres is the following absenteeism and tardiness provision in Wis. Stat. § 108.04(5)(e):

(e) Absenteeism by an employee on more than 2 occasions within the 120 day period before the date of the employee’s termination, unless otherwise specified by his or her employer in an employment manual of which the employee has acknowledged receipt with his or her signature, or excessive tardiness by an employee in violation of a policy of the employer that has been communicated to the employee, if the employee does not provide to his or her employer both notice and one or more valid reasons for the absenteeism or tardiness.

This change in unemployment law began at the 29 November 2012 meeting of the Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council when the Department, on its own initiative, dropped more than a dozen substantive changes to unemployment law. See this post for the memo that originally describes all of these changes. Proposal D12-01 included numerous changes to disqualification standards, including the elimination of the absenteeism and tardy provisions in Wis. Stat. § 108.04(5g) by adding a new disqualification called “substantial fault” and the addition of a new, specific absenteeism provision that would qualify as misconduct. This proposed absenteeism and tardiness qua misconduct provision in Proposal D12-01 stated:

Excessive absenteeism or tardiness in violation of a known company policy and the individual does not provide to the employer both notice and a valid reason or reasons for the absence or tardiness.

See D12-01 at 3.

At the 1 April 2013 meeting of the Advisory Council, the Advisory Council rejected the proposed substantial fault provision and made some changes to the absenteeism and tardiness thresholds set forth in Wis. Stat. § 108.04(5g) for triggering a disqualification. The specific changes, however, were not announced to the public.

NOTE: The minutes of the 1 April 2013 meeting of the Advisory Council only state the following:

(A) Department Proposal D12-01 (Misconduct Standard) the Council supported this Department proposal with modifications. The Council agreement enumerated within the statute the standard taken from the Wisconsin Supreme Court decision of Boynton Cab and amended the proposal to solely provide four examples of conduct that would qualify as misconduct, but not limit misconduct to these four examples. The four examples relate to employee conduct concerning:

  1. Illegal Use of Drugs and Use of Alcohol While on the Job;
  2. Larceny;
  3. Crimes Related to the Job; and,
  4. Violations that would lead to Fines or License Suspension of the Employer.

The Council also agreed to amend the language of section 108.04(5g) of the Wisconsin Statutes with respect to absenteeism and tardiness to make it easier for either reason to disqualify a claimant from benefits.

After the meeting ended, I asked Robert Andersen if he could send me a copy of what the Advisory Council had specifically agreed on.

NOTE: Robert Andersen, worked with the members of the Advisory Council’s labor caucus during non-public discussion of proposed changes to unemployment law, and he helped facilitate agreement between the labor and management caucuses.

On 2 April 2013, I received an e-mail message from Mr. Andersen that contained the specific provisions agreed upon by the Advisory Council in an attachment. That attachment indicates that the Advisory Council agreed to to amend sub-section (5g) in the following manner:

(5g) DISCHARGE FOR FAILURE TO NOTIFY EMPLOYER OF ABSENTEEISM OR TARDINESS. (a) If an employee is discharged for failing to notify his or her employer of absenteeism or tardiness that becomes excessive, and the employer has complied with the requirements of par. (d) with respect to that employee, the employee is ineligible to receive benefits until 6 weeks have elapsed since the end of the week in which the discharge occurs and the employee earns wages after the week in which the discharge occurs equal to at least 6 times the employee’s weekly benefit rate under s. 108.05 (1) in employment or other work covered by the unemployment insurance law of any state or the federal government. For purposes of requalification, the employee’s weekly benefit rate shall be the rate that would have been paid had the discharge not occurred.

(b) For purposes of this subsection, tardiness becomes excessive if an employee is late for 6 4 or more scheduled workdays in the 12 month 120 day period preceding the date of the discharge without providing adequate notice to his or her employer.

(c) For purposes of this subsection, absenteeism becomes excessive if an employee is absent for 5 2 or more scheduled workdays in the 12 month 120 day period preceding the date of the discharge without providing adequate notice to his or her employer.

(d) 1. The requalifying requirements under par. (a) apply only if the employer has a written policy on notification of tardiness or absences that:

a. Defines what constitutes a single occurrence of tardiness or absenteeism;

b. Describes the process for providing adequate notice of tardiness or absence, and, regarding tardiness, which gives the employee a reasonable time for providing notice and which at least allows the employee the opportunity to provide notice as soon as practically possible; and

c. Notifies the employee that failure to provide adequate notice of an absence or tardiness may lead to discharge.

2. The employer shall provide a copy of the written policy under subd. 1. to each employee and shall have written evidence that the employee received a copy of that policy.

3. The employer must have given the employee at least one warning concerning the employee’s violation of the employer’s written policy under subd. 1. within the 12 month period preceding the date of the discharge.

4. The employer must apply the written policy under subd. 1. uniformly to all employees of the employer.

This memorandum does not appear in the Department’s supportive materials for Beres, however.

Janell Knutsen is the director of the Bureau of Legal Affairs for the Department’s Unemployment Division and serves as the non-voting chair of the Advisory Council. In her affidavit included in the record in this matter, Ms. Knutsen states:

12. The April 1, 2013 resolution recommending legislative change to the absence and tardiness statute was the only action by the UIAC on a proposal to change the disqualification for absence or tardiness during my tenure as UIAC Chair. I do not find in the Minutes of the April 1, 2013 UIAC meeting or in the Minutes of subsequent meetings in 2013 any other or additional recommendations or other action of the UIAC regarding disqualification for absence and tardiness. A copy of the five-page Minutes of the April 1, 2013 meeting of the UIAC is attached to this affidavit and identified as Exhibit 4. The attached minutes were formally approved by unanimous vote of the UIAC members at the April 18, 2013 UIAC meeting.

* * *

16. As the UIAC files show, there is no evidence in the UIAC files regarding the development of the language that became Wis. Stat. § 108.04(5)(e) and no evidence of involvement of the UIAC in the choice of words by the Legislature in its enactment of Wis. Stat. § 108.04(5)(e), except as generally reflected in the UIAC resolution of April 1, 2013, that stated “The Council also agreed to amend the language of section 108.04(5g) of the Wisconsin statutes with respect to absenteeism and tardiness to make it easier for either reason to disqualify a claimant for benefits.”

R.18-4 and 18-5. Ms. Knutsen also states in ¶15 of her affidavit (R.18-5) that she and Department staff searched Department records for “all written materials in those files relating to the action that the UIAC took to recommend changes to the unemployment law regarding disqualification for absenteeism and tardiness” and that she believes she has “identified in this Affidavit all such materials in the UIAC files.”

Michael Duchek is a legislative attorney at the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau who was directly involved in drafting unemployment legislation in 2013. In his affidavit, part 1 included in the record in this matter, Mr. Duchek states:

10. I understand that the Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council considered the D12-01 proposal (Exhibit 7) and that on April 1,2013 the Advisory Council voted to recommend to the Legislature amendments to Wis. Stat. §§ 108.04(5) and (5g), although the Council’s recommendation departed from the statutory language that the Department had proposed in its D12-01 proposal.

11. The language that LRB incorporated in draft bills to amend Wis. Stat. §§ 108.04 (5) and (5g), although similar in general to D12-01 and the recommendation of the Council, was developed by LRB in consultation with the legislative requestor and did not match the amendments which were recommended to the Legislature by the Council.

12. It is evident from the proposals by the Department and the Council that each of them was drafted to strengthen the disqualification provisions related to misconduct, absenteeism and tardiness. The same is true of Wis. Stat. § 108.04(5)(e) and the other misconduct provisions as drafted by LRB and enacted in Act 20, although the enacted provisions went further to achieve this objective than did the Department and Council proposals.

R.19-3. Mr. Duchek indicates in ¶18 of his affidavit that his first draft of a new absenteeism and tardiness qua misconduct disqualification occurred on 13 May 2013. R.19-5. As indicated throughout the supporting materials attached to Mr. Duchek’s affidavit, this language was drafted at the request of Rep. Knodl and his legislative assistant, BJ Dernbach. See also the available drafting requests.

There is no indication in Mr. Duchek’s affidavit or in the 800+ pages of supporting materials that any action was undertaken to enact the changes to Wis. Stat. § 108.04(5g) approved by the Advisory Council (fyi, part 2 of Mr. Duchek’s affidavit is also available).

The Department bill that purportedly set forth what the Advisory Council had proposed was introduced as 2013 SB200. That bill did NOT include any of the recommended disqualification changes to the misconduct or quit provisions of unemployment law approved by the Advisory Council. When the first public hearing for 2013 SB200 was under way on 29 May 2013, the Joint Finance Committee also met that day in regards to the budget bill at issue then, 2013 AB40. At that meeting, the Joint Finance Committee introduced an amendment via Motion #506 to 2013 AB40. Motion #506 included the absenteeism language Mr. Duchek had drafted. See ¶¶23 and 24 of Mr. Duchek’s affidavit, R.19-7, and R.19-14 to 19-27 for a copy of Motion #506; see also Advisory Council — 2 May 2013 meeting — and legislative actions today (29 May 2013).

As evident in her affidavit, Ms. Knutson has studiously avoided any mention or description of the actual language the Advisory Council specifically had adopted in regards to new absenteeism and tardiness disqualification thresholds in Wis. Stat. §108.04(5g).

Neither affidavit by Mr. Duchek or Ms. Knutsen indicate how and why the clause “unless otherwise specified by his or her employer in an employment manual of which the employee has acknowledged receipt with his or her signature” was added to the draft legislation, as this clause was NOT part of: (1) the original Department proposal, (2) what the Advisory Council adopted, or (3) the 1 April 2013 letter and proposals from legislators featured prominently in Ms. Knutsen’s affidavit at ¶¶10-11, R.18-3 to 18-4, and also noted in Mr. Duchek’s affidavit at ¶¶7, 8, and 10 (the legislator’s letter is available in the record at 18-23 to 18-36 and in partial form at 19-35 to 19-46).

In contrast to Ms. Knutson’s statements omitting the existence of any specific absenteeism proposals by the Advisory Council, Mr. Duchek’s affidavit provides evidence that the Advisory Council’s specific proposals existed, were circulated beyond the Advisory Council, and indeed were reviewed by Mr. Duchek himself. Mr. Duchek states that the “Council’s recommendation departed from the statutory language that the Department had proposed” and also that the Legislative Reference Bureau’s draft bill that would become Wis. Stat. § 108.04(5)(e) “did not match the amendments which were recommended to the Legislature by the Council.” Ducheck Aff. at ¶¶10-11.

Mr. Ducheck also states in his affidavit that it is “evident from the proposals by the Department and the Council that each of them was drafted to strengthen the disqualification provisions.” Ducheck Aff. at ¶12. While the Advisory Council’s April 1st proposal did make it easier to disqualify claimants, nowhere in the Advisory Council’s proposal were employers given the unilateral power to determine employees’ eligibility for benefits via employer policies.

Finally, neither Ms. Knutsen nor Mr. Duchek explain how the Advisory Council’s threshold for absenteeism of “2 or more scheduled workdays” became “more than 2” absences in the enacted legislation. In other words, the three absences in 120 days provision that was enacted is less strict than what the Advisory Council had adopted and includes a number that was completely absent from the original Department proposal.

What next?

Today, December 1st, is scheduled for oral arguments in Beres, TetraTech, and Wisconsin Bell.

This legislative history for the absenteeism changes in unemployment law will probably NOT come up, however. This legislative history has not been part of the Wisconsin Supreme Court briefing, and the acclaimed focus of judges on the statutory text does not seem to hold much water in comparison to the policy issues at stake in such legislation. Indeed, what has featured prominently in the briefing is the marker laid down in Operton about agency deference and the ability/responsibility of judges to determine on their own constitutional initiative the reasonableness of what administrative agencies decide.

So, in follow-up posts I will delve into this question of agency deference, and I will attempt to explain what happened in oral arguments today in these three cases.

But, the complete mess of the statutory text at issue in Beres should matter, especially when that statutory text will likely serve as a vehicle for probably proclaiming how administrative agencies cannot provide, according to newly empowered judges, rationale applications of that statutory text. For these judges (as the Department of Justice claimed in its briefing), the Commission is being accused of not transforming a nonsensical absenteeism disqualification into something rational, let alone provide an interpretation that is so reasonable that no judge could ever disagree with it. In short, a **ed-up statute is being used as the vehicle for requiring administrative agencies to provide explanations for their interpretations that survive heightened scrutiny.

All the posts in this series

UPDATE (11 Dec. 2017): Added links for all the posts — expanded from the original plan.

On-line only claim filing

As of 1 September 2017, the Department mandated that all unemployment claims and all weekly claim certifications be filed on-line only.

As noted when the Department mandated in May 2017 that initial unemployment claims had to be filed on-line, federal guidelines indicate that on-line only requirements are problematic.

This new, more expansive mandate from the Department seems to ignore these cautions from federal authorities about maintaining effective options for those with limited on-line access or limited English proficiency. For instance, the Department seems only to be providing assistance for on-line filing, not any actual alternatives to on-line filing.

At the very bottom of this page, a person having trouble with on-line claims finds this advice:

For help using online services or if you are truly unable to go online call 414-438-7713 during business hours.

The general page about unemployment services also indicates that on-line filing is required. For those who want help with their clams, this advice is offered:

For help using online services call 414-438-7713 during business hours:

Monday — Friday 7:45 AM – 4:30 PM

Callers may be asked to call back on a specific day of the week.

Additionally, this same general page also explains just under the notice about reporting fraud that:

DWD is an equal opportunity employer and service provider. If you have a disability and need assistance with this information, please dial 7-1-1 for Wisconsin Relay Service. Please contact the Unemployment Insurance Division at 414-438-7713 to request information in an alternate format, including translated to another language.

In the claimants’ handbook, the advice for those who might have trouble with the on-line system is tucked away under the Filing a Weekly Claim Certification:

Important Points to Remember When Filing a Weekly Claim:

All questions apply to the specific calendar week for which you are claiming. For example, when asked if you quit a job, you are being asked if you quit during the week you are claiming. If you did not quit during that week, answer “NO.”

If you are truly unable to use online services to file your weekly claim, contact a Claims Specialist at 414-438-5395 during business hours. Claims Specialists are available to assist you.

In a FAQ about benefit filing, the Department explains:

The Unemployment Insurance Division is retiring the automated telephone filing system. Workers must now file online. Apply online at https://my.unemployment.wisconsin.gov. For help using online services call 414-438-7713 during business hours.

So, the Department is having claimants call for assistance to make their on-line claim work and not offering any alternatives to the on-line claim process. Moreover, these phone calls are NOT toll-free and can only occur during limited hours.

For those calling with limited English proficiency, my sources indicate that phone-service interpreters will be added to the call to help explain the on-line filing requirements to claimants. Those with limited access to the Internet — which is most of Wisconsin, as high-speed broadband is still not available to most homes in rural Wisconsin — are being told to file at their local libraries. Indeed, the Department has indicated on numerous occasions to ask librarians for assistance when filing their unemployment claims.

Finally, there are some doubts about the adequacy of the Spanish version of the on-line filing system for Spanish-speaking claimants.

NOTE: There is still no on-line option for Hmong-speaking claimants.

The terms of use for the on-line system declares:

DISCLAIMER FOR TRANSLATION

The Google™ translation feature is provided for informational purposes only. Please be advised that the Department of Workforce Development is unable to guarantee the accuracy of this translation service and is therefore not liable for any inaccurate information resulting from the translation application tool. Please consult with your own translator for accuracy if you are relying on the translation or are using this site for official business.

The US Dep’t of Labor has specifically held in UIPL 02-16 at 9 that machine translation — what google does when it translates — is NOT adequate and that these kinds of disclaimers are just silly. As explained on digitalgov.gov:

Some view disclaimers as the solution to justify an imperfect translation. Ask yourself and your managers: What are we trying to achieve? If an agency provides imperfect information but includes a disclaimer, the agency is essentially saying that it cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information they have provided. If so, how is this:

  • fulfilling a need?
  • fulfilling our mission?
  • serving the public?

Consider how you would react if you were reading information that had a disclaimer that said, very politely, that the agency can’t guarantee the integrity of the translation and, therefore, can’t guarantee the accuracy of the information it is giving you. A disclaimer on translated content works for the agency, but it does not work for the person trying to accomplish a task.

As already noted, this on-line mandate seems little more than an elaborate trap for charging claimants with fraud when they get confused and make a mistake on their claims. The initial screen claimants see with the on-line system — even before they create a user-id and password — makes this goal front and center:

Initial warning screen

Claim-filing in Wisconsin at record low but economy not booming

A June press release from the Department of Workforce Development declared Wisconsin’s record low unemployment rate:

BLS Data: Wisconsin’s 3.1% Unemployment Rate Tied for 7th Lowest in Nation

State’s Labor Force Participation Rate also tied for 5th highest in country

MADISON – Department of Workforce Development (DWD) Secretary Ray Allen released the following statement following today’s U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) release showing Wisconsin tied for the 7th lowest unemployment rate in the nation, significantly lower than the national rate. The release also noted that Wisconsin’s addition of 40,400 total non-farm jobs from May 2016 to May 2017 was statistically significant and Wisconsin’s labor force participation rate was tied for 5th highest in the country:

“Not only is Wisconsin’s 3.1 percent unemployment rate a near record-low for our state, but our rate is lower than that of 42 other states, including the neighboring states of Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota, and tied with Iowa for 7th lowest in the country,” Secretary Allen said. “We also are tied for the 5th highest labor force participation rate in the country, ahead of the neighboring states of Illinois, Iowa and Michigan. Under Governor Walker’s leadership, Wisconsin’s employers and communities are reaping economic rewards from a winning combination of a best-in-class workforce and innovative. proven worker training programs.”

Highlights of Friday’s BLS release of state-by-state employment and unemployment data for May 2017 include:

  • Wisconsin’s 3.1 percent unemployment rate tied for the 7th lowest in the nation in May 2017 and was significantly lower than the national rate of 4.3 percent.
  • Wisconsin added a statistically significant 40,400 total non-farm jobs from May 2016 to May 2017.
  • Wisconsin’s unemployment rate decline of 1.0 percent from 4.1% in May 2016 to 3.1% in May 2017 was statistically significant.
  • Wisconsin’s labor force participation rate of 68.8% tied for 5th best in the nation in May 2017.

Other indicators of Wisconsin’s economy include:

  • Both total labor force and employment in Wisconsin remained at all-time high in May, while the number of unemployed individuals was its lowest point since February 2000.
  • The rate of 3.1 percent is the second-lowest rate on record for Wisconsin (the lowest rate was 3.0 percent in May-July 1999).
  • Wisconsin’s January (3.9 percent) to May (3.1 percent) unemployment rate decline of 0.8 percentage points in 2017 is the steepest January-May decline since 1983.
  • Wisconsin’s labor force participation rate increased by 0.2 percentage points to 68.8 percent, while the U.S. labor force participation rate decreased to 62.7 percent in May.
  • Initial UI claims ended 2016 at their lowest level in their last 30 years. Year 2017 initial UI claims are running at their lowest levels since 1989.
  • Continuing unemployment claims ended 2016 at their lowest level since 1973. Continuing unemployment claims in Wisconsin are running the lowest in at least the past 30 years.

Friday’s BLS ‘Regional and State Employment and Unemployment Summary’ report

The last two points deserve particular note:

  • Initial UI claims ended 2016 at their lowest level in their last 30 years. Year 2017 initial UI claims are running at their lowest levels since 1989.
  • Continuing unemployment claims ended 2016 at their lowest level since 1973. Continuing unemployment claims in Wisconsin are running the lowest in at least the past 30 years.

These indicate that people have stopped filing unemployment claims at levels when in 1990 the population in Wisconsin was around 4.9 million and per capita income was $18,072 or in 1975 when the state population was around 4.6 million and per capita income was $6,086. For comparison, in 2014 the state’s population was nearly 5.8 million and per capita income was $44,585. And, from 1990 to the start of 2015, the civilian labor force in Wisconsin increased from 2,567,200 to 3,120,800 persons.

Furthermore, when the unemployment rate was similarly low in the late 1990s, per capita income rose by over 5% most of those years. As recent economic reports from COWS establish, however, income in Wisconsin is currently stagnant for most Wisconsin residents except for the very few at the top of the income ladder.

So, there are big contradictions in the Wisconsin labor force. People in Wisconsin are working and not filing unemployment claims. But, they are not getting any wage increases from employers who should be having trouble finding job applicants and so trying to entice people to switch jobs with offers of higher wages and greater job benefits.

Perhaps the Department has created a system where unemployment is much higher than the data indicates because people are NOT filing unemployment claims but instead taking low-wage, part-time work as a substitute in large part because full-time, high wage work is not available from employers who are not expanding or growing their businesses. COWS 2017 report on working Wisconsin reveals that the wealth and economic gains at the very top obscures the economic stagnation for the rest of the state’s residents. The August jobs report reinforces this conclusion, as Wisconsin job growth this summer remained stagnant (private sector jobs in July were revised to a 600 decline, August preliminary numbers indicate a 5,200 loss in private sector employment, and only June shows an anemic increase of 1,300 jobs after a revision).