Clinic Argues Unemployment Compensation Appeal Before the ND Supreme Court

UND Law Clinic Argues Unemployment Compensation Appeal Before the North Dakota Supreme Court

A year’s worth of work by student attorneys enrolled in the UND Clinical Education Program (“the Law Clinic”) culminated on Monday, April 6th, 2009, when oral arguments in the case of Schweitzer v. Job Service North Dakota were heard by the North Dakota Supreme Court

ND Supreme CourtAmong law school-sponsored programs that provide opportunities for students to engage in trial and appellate advocacy, the Law Clinic is the only one in which students represent live clients in cases before real courts.  Certified student attorney Meredith Vukelic was the first second-year law student to appear and argue before the state Supreme Court, pursuant to a change in the student practice rule initiated by Law Clinic students two years ago.  During the Spring 2009 semester, Meredith joined her student attorney teammates in the Law Clinic, Megan Jahner, Diane Wehrman, and Arin Ridl, in drafting the brief submitted to the Supreme Court and preparing for oral arguments.

The Law Clinic began representation of Crystal Schweitzer in April of 2008.  Ms. Schweitzer had been denied unemployment benefits by Job Service North Dakota after being terminated by her employer, LM Glasfiber.  Following an administrative proceeding, Job Service North Dakota found that Ms. Schweitzer had committed misconduct that disqualified her from receiving unemployment compensation.  At issue was a single telephone call that Ms. Schweitzer had made to a temporary personnel agency, which she made in an effort to help a relative find employment.

The Spring 2008 semester Law Clinic case team representing Ms. Schweitzer (consisting of certified student attorneys Justin Keppinger, Tali Best, Sarah Schaar, and Johnny Palsgraf) submitted a Petition for Review and Specifications of Error to the Northeast Central Judicial District Court nearly a year ago.  In July of 2008, Summer Law Clinic clerks Justin Keppinger and Rochelle Belobraydic drafted and filed a brief with the District Court in support of reversing the decision by Job Service ND.  In October of 2008, however, the District Court affirmed the decision.  Ms. Schweitzer’s Fall 2008 case team (consisting of certified student attorneys Justin Keppinger, Nicole Klein, Mikayla Jablonski, and Dean DePountis) prepared and filed a Notice of Appeal to the District Court indicating that Ms. Schweitzer intended to appeal the decision to the North Dakota Supreme Court.  Each of the above filings was the product of significant legal research and analysis, examination of the procedural rules, and client counseling activities performed by the student attorneys on the case teams.

Law ClinicThe Spring 2009 case team, consisting of certified student attorneys Meredith Vukelic, Megan Jahner, Diane Wehrman, and Arin Ridl, re-evaluated the arguments made to the District Court below, with particular attention to the standard of appellate review for Job Service ND determinations and the application of legal standards for “disqualifying misconduct” in cases where an employee is fired for a single, isolated incident of misconduct.  In drafting the Brief of Appellant, the case team emphasized the policies underlying unemployment compensation, which was created in order to minimize the hardship on the unemployed worker and the unemployed worker’s family.  The North Dakota Legislature intended to soften the harsh impact of involuntary unemployment by providing a weekly unemployment benefit to those employees not disqualified by statute. 

Said Ms. Wehrman about the experience, “In conducting our research, we learned that it is settled law in North Dakota that an employer can discharge an employee for any reason, under the principles of at-will employment. It is less clear, however, what kinds of conduct are sufficient to justify the denial of unemployment benefits. In many instances, conduct that is deemed by an employer to warrant termination does not rise to a level that disqualifies the terminated employee from receiving unemployment benefits. In making unemployment compensation determinations on a case-by-case basis, Job Service North Dakota is guided by state Supreme Court decisions on the issue of benefit-disqualifying misconduct. It is our hope that bringing this case to the North Dakota Supreme Court will both help Ms. Schweitzer obtain the unemployment benefits to which we believe she is entitled and further clarify what type of conduct will disqualify an individual from receiving unemployment compensation for future Job Service North Dakota decisions affecting many more people.”

The case team was excited to learn on March 24, 2009 that oral arguments in front of the North Dakota Supreme Court were scheduled to take place April 6, 2009.  All four members of the case team were willing and able to present oral argument before the Court, but the team collaborated to select just one student who would make the actual appearance.  Then, the case team worked tirelessly to prepare Meredith Vukelic for oral argument.  Case team members and Professors Margaret Moore Jackson and Danny Schaffzin played the role of judges and opposing counsel to moot Meredith.  In two weeks of preparation, the case team and supervising faculty conducted more than ten practice sessions.  This intense preparation was apparent when many of the questions that had been asked during the practice sessions were in fact asked by the Justices of the North Dakota Supreme Court during the actual oral argument.

UND Law ClinicThe entire case team and supervising faculty traveled to Bismarck and attended the argument.  Several spectators commented that Ms. Vukelic represented Ms. Schweitzer and the Law Clinic well before the Justices of the North Dakota Supreme Court.  The gallery was full.  As a part of the tour of the capitol, a class from Our Redeemer’s Christian High School of Minot, ND, attended the argument.  Said Ms. Vukelic of the experience, "Although we had a couple of weeks packed full of nerves and anxiety, the actual experience of appearing in front of the Court turned out to be more fun and exciting, than anything else."

Copies of the briefs submitted by the parties to the North Dakota Supreme Court and a recording of the oral arguments presented to the Court on April 6, 2009 can be found on the Court’s website.  It is anticipated that the North Dakota Supreme Court will issue an opinion ruling on Ms. Schweitzer’s appeal within the next several months.