A claimant on house arrest was not “incarcerated” and therefore not ineligible for unemployment benefits, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held in Chamberlain v. UCBR, __ A.3d __ (No. 76 MAP 2014, filed April 27, 2015). The claimant in this case, Charles Chamberlain, was sentenced to 60 days in the Keystone House Arrest Program, which restricted him to his sister’s home but permitted him to work and run errands. The Department rejected his claim for unemployment compensation under Section 402.6 of the Unemployment Compensation Law, which states that an employee is ineligible for benefits for any weeks he is “incarcerated after a conviction.” 43 P.S. §802.6. The Referee and UCBR affirmed, and Chamberlain appealed.
On review, a unanimous panel of the Commonwealth Court reversed, holding that Chamberlain’s house arrest did not constitute “incarceration” for purposes of Section 402.6. Chamberlain v. UCBR, 83 A.3d 283 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2014). The Court limited its holding to the facts presented, noting that because Chamberlain’s house arrest placed no restrictions on his ability to work, the record supported his assertion that he was genuinely attached to the labor market.
The Supreme Court allowed the Board’s appeal and affirmed the Commonwealth Court’s decision. Writing for the majority, Justice Baer observed that the term “incarceration” is ambiguous since it can mean either imprisonment or the broader concept of confinement. Prior to the enactment of Section 402.6, a claimant had only to show that he was able and available for work to be eligible for benefits. There was no evidence, however, to suggest that Section 402.6 was intended to disqualify claimants who were not incarcerated in a prison or similar institution but, rather, were sentenced to the less severe sanction of home confinement. Absent clear legislative intent to disqualify such individuals, and considering the remedial purposes underlying the UC law, the majority held that house arrest does not constitute “incarceration” for purposes of Section 402.6’s disqualification provision. Like the Commonwealth Court, the Supreme Court emphasized that not all claimants on house arrest will be eligible for unemployment compensation; the terms of an individual’s house arrest drive the outcome.
Justice Stevens filed a dissenting opinion stating that individuals sentenced to house arrest following a conviction are “incarcerated” and should be ineligible for benefits under Section 402.6, regardless of whether they can leave home to attend work. In Justice Stevens’ view, a convicted criminal should not be rewarded with unemployment compensation.