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Reginia Williams v. the Board of Review

March 24, 2011

REGINIA WILLIAMS,
APPELLEE,
v.
THE BOARD OF REVIEW, AN ADMINISTRATIVE AGENCY OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, ET AL.,
APPELLANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Theis

JUSTICE THEIS delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

Chief Justice Kilbride and Justices Freeman, Thomas, Garman, Karmeier, and Burke concurred in the judgment and opinion.

OPINION

At issue is whether appellee, Reginia Williams, is eligible to receive trade readjustment allowance (TRA) benefits under the federal Trade Act of 1974 (Act) (19 U.S.C. §2101 et seq. (2006))*fn1 . The Board of Review (Board) of the Illinois Department of Employment Security (Department) denied Williams TRA benefits because she had missed a statutory deadline for enrollment in an approved training program. The circuit court of Cook County confirmed the Board's decision, and the appellate court reversed (395 Ill. App. 3d 337).

We now affirm the judgment of the appellate court, albeit for reasons different from those advanced by that court.

BACKGROUND

To better understand the facts of this case, and to give them some context, we begin with an overview of the federal legislation.

The Act

As set forth in the congressional statement of purpose, the Act is intended to foster economic growth and full employment in the United States, reduce trade barriers, and generally open up new market opportunities. 19 U.S.C. §2102. The Act is also intended "to provide adequate procedures to safeguard American industry and labor against unfair or injurious import competition, and to assist industries, firm[s], workers, and communities to adjust to changes in international trade flows." 19 U.S.C. §2102(4). To this end, the Act provides various forms of relief from injury caused by import competition. See 19 U.S.C. §§2251 through 2401g. Specific to an "adversely affected worker"--a worker who has been "separated from employment" (19 U.S.C. §2319(2))--the Act provides "trade adjustment assistance" (TAA) in the form of "counseling, testing, training, placement, and other supportive services," with the goal of achieving reemployment. 20 C.F.R. §§617.1(a), 617.2, 617.3(nn) (2006); 19 U.S.C. §§2295 through 2298. In addition, the Act provides for the payment of a TRA, a cash allowance payable to qualifying workers to supplement state unemployment insurance benefits. 19 U.S.C. §§2291 through 2293; 20 C.F.R. §§617.1(b), 617.3(nn), 617.11.

TAA and TRA benefits are only available to workers covered by a "certification of eligibility." 19 U.S.C. §§2271, 2291. To obtain a certification, a group of workers, their union or other representative, or their employer must file a petition with the Secretary of Labor (Secretary) indicating that the threatened or actual job losses are the result of import competition or a shift in production to a foreign country. See 19 U.S.C. §§2271, 2272. If, after investigation, the Secretary agrees, the Secretary issues a certification of eligibility for benefits. 19 U.S.C. §2273. A worker covered by a certification must still satisfy other statutory conditions before payment of TRA benefits can be made. 19 U.S.C. §2291; 20 C.F.R. §617.11. One such condition, relevant to this appeal, focuses on job training. 19 U.S.C. §2291(a)(5); 20 C.F.R. 617.11(a)(2)(vii)(A). If the worker has not already completed a training program approved by the Secretary, or has not obtained a waiver of training, the worker must be enrolled in an approved program by the latest of:

"(I) the last day of the 16th week after the worker's most recent total separation from adversely affected employment ***,

(II) the last day of the 8th week after the week in which the Secretary issues a certification covering the worker, [or]

(III) 45 days after the later of the dates specified in subclause (I) or (II), if the Secretary determines there are extenuating circumstances that justify an extension in the enrollment period[.]" 19 U.S.C. §2291(a)(5)(A)(ii).

The deadline established in subsections (I) and (II) above is generally referred to by the Department of Labor as the "8/16 week deadline." See, e.g., 69 Fed. Reg. 60,903 (Oct. 13, 2004).

TRA benefits, though funded by the federal government, are administered locally by the Department, as agent of the United States, pursuant to a cooperative agreement with the Secretary. 19 U.S.C. §§2311(a), 2313. The Department is obligated to notify workers about the availability of TAA and TRA benefits at two distinct times. First, the Department must advise each worker, at the time the worker first applies for state unemployment insurance, of the benefits under the Act, including the procedures and deadlines for applying for such benefits. 19 U.S.C. §2311(f); 20 C.F.R. §§617.4(e)(1), 617.10(d). Second, upon receipt of a certification of eligibility from the Secretary, the Department must provide notice by mail to each worker covered by that certification. 20 C.F.R. §617.4(d)(1)(i). The written notice must include an explanation of how, when and where workers can apply for benefits. 20 C.F.R. §617.4(d)(1)(ii). To effect notice by mail, the Department is required to obtain from the employer, or other reliable source, the names and addresses of all adversely affected workers covered by the certification. 20 C.F.R. §617.4(d)(1)(ii).

With this background, we turn to the present dispute.

Williams' Case

On April 21, 2006, Williams' employment with Chicago Castings Company was terminated due to the permanent closing of that facility. Williams had been employed at the company for over nine years. The termination notice the company gave to Williams stated that she may use the notice to apply for unemployment benefits. The notice did not refer to TAA or TRA benefits. Two days later, Williams applied for unemployment insurance benefits in person at her local unemployment office. Williams explained where she had worked and why she was laid off. The Department did not advise Williams that she might be eligible for TRA benefits or provide any information to her about TRA benefits generally. On June 21, 2006, the Secretary certified that Chicago Castings' workers were eligible to apply for benefits under the Act. Williams was not on the list of workers the Department obtained from Chicago Castings, and the Department never notified Williams that she could apply for TRA benefits.

Williams first learned from a co-worker, on or about October 10, 2006, about the possibility of being paid while obtaining training. The co-worker, who had worked in a different department than Williams, said that she had received a letter explaining the program. Based on this conversation, Williams believed that her unemployment insurance benefits were the same as her co-worker's TRA benefits. After exhaustion of her unemployment insurance benefits in December 2006, and after learning that there would be no extension, Williams contacted her local unemployment office and inquired about TRA benefits. As instructed, Williams obtained an appointment at the Department's local office on December 12, 2006. Williams was advised that she was not in the system for TRA benefits or on the list to whom outreach letters had been sent. Williams immediately applied for TRA benefits and sought a waiver of the training requirement. That same day, the Department, through its local TAA administrator, denied Williams benefits because she had missed the 8/16 week deadline for enrollment in an approved training program.

Under the 8/16 week deadline, Williams was required to be enrolled by the later of August 12, 2006 (the last day of the 16th week after she was laid off), or August 17, 2006 (the last day of the 8th week after the Secretary's certification). If extenuating circumstances existed, the enrollment deadline could have been extended 45 days to October 2, 2006.

Williams immediately sought reconsideration, explaining that she had not been advised of TRA benefits. On December 27, 2006, the Department again ruled she was ineligible. Williams appealed that decision, which resulted in a telephone hearing conducted by a Department referee in May 2007. Williams testified generally to the facts set forth above and argued that, under these circumstances, equitable tolling should apply. The referee found, as a matter of fact, that Williams did not apply for benefits earlier than December 12, 2006, "because she was unaware of possible eligibility prior to that time." The referee determined that while the reason for Williams' failure to be enrolled in an approved training program was a "compelling" one, he was without authority to overlook the statutory deadline.

Williams appealed the referee's decision to the Board, again arguing that the decision should be reversed because the Department failed to comply with its statutory obligation to provide notice to her about the procedures and deadlines for TRA benefits. Williams cited a federal regulation which provides a "good cause" exception to the application deadline where notice is not provided. See 20 C.F.R. ยง617.10(b). Williams further argued that under the doctrine of equitable tolling her TRA application should be deemed timely. Alternatively, Williams argued that the 8/16 week deadline does ...


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