Judge Michelle Van Woeart was entitled to collect unemployment benefits after the town removed her from a part-time position as clerk in her own court for reasons outside of misconduct or justifiable cause, the state Department of Labor affirmed this week.
The state Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board upheld an administrative law judge’s ruling in favor of Princetown’s lone justice in January. In reaching the decision, the board found that “no errors of fact or law” were made in the case, meaning Van Woeart was lawfully entitled to partial unemployment benefits as of November 2012.
Van Woeart was removed from the position in October after town officials refused to continue paying her $26,677 salary. The board made the move after interpreting a state Attorney General’s Office opinion as indicating that the position of clerk is incompatible with the position of town justice in the same court
Stephen DeNigris, the labor attorney representing Van Woeart, was pleased with the ruling, which affirms his client’s contention that she has served in both roles without issue for roughly 15 years. He said the ruling will put the justice at ease, since she has already spent the money she received from the claim on bills and would have to face repaying the town had the decision gone the other way.
DeNigris said Van Woeart, who continues to serve as justice, has since found another part-time job. He called the town’s appeal of the original judgement “another indication of retribution” from the administration of town Supervisor Michael Joyce and his supporters.
“This is simply political vindictiveness,” he said Thursday.
Joyce disagreed. He said the decision to deny Van Woeart’s claim came because there was a consensus on the board that she didn’t deserve benefits since the town offered her contract work after she was removed from the clerk’s position and she opted against taking it.
“We don’t feel the [law judge] directly answered the question of why she can collect unemployment even when she’s still working and the Town Board had offered her additional work on a contract basis,” he said.
Joyce said Van Woeart’s unemployment claim also directly impacts the town’s budget. Princetown does not carry unemployment insurance and therefore must pay claims directly through the general fund.
“We had the fiscal responsibility to watch how the town monies are spent and to challenge any unwarranted expenditures,” he said.
Van Woeart, who started working as a clerk in the court in 1985, has served in both positions since she was appointed to replace retiring Justice Christopher Cernik in 1997. Town officials opted to stop paying her clerk salary as of Oct. 10.
It was unclear how much money Van Woeart has collected in unemployment. DeNigris said Van Woeart is no longer collecting unemployment but was unsure when she stopped making claims.
The ruling draws to a close one legal spat between the justice and town, but many others remain. Van Woeart is in the process of appealing a state Supreme Court decision dimissing her challenge of the town’s decision to remove her from the clerk position last fall.
Van Woeart is also among a trio of females at Town Hall who filed a complaint with the state Human Rights Division claiming gender discrimination and a hostile work environment. She is also the defendant in a slander lawsuit, in which she is accused of falsely stating the town’s deputy supervisor “killed a man” in comments she made in the public forum of a Town Board meeting.