Baltimore judge dismisses remaining claims in Md. unemployment lawsuit

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A Baltimore judge has dismissed the remaining claims in a case that challenged Maryland’s unemployment benefits payment policies.

Judge John Nugent, in a memorandum and order signed Tuesday, said the remaining plaintiffs had not exhausted administrative remedies available to them through the Department of Labor.

The plaintiffs had sued Maryland Labor Secretary Tiffany P. Robinson after their unemployment claims were disqualified, placed on hold or disqualified for suspected fraud. They said their claims were held without explanation or an opportunity for an administrative hearing, and sought a judgment declaring that Robinson violated state law by failing to process claims in a timely fashion.

Nugent concluded that state law established specific procedures for people to challenge decisions on their unemployment claims, including an appeal at the agency level, then to the Board of Appeals, and, if necessary, to seek judicial review. Allowing the plaintiffs to bypass the administrative appeal process by filing lawsuits would “only further delay the timely processing of benefits claims,” Nugent wrote.

“It is apparent from the statutory scheme that judicial review of final agency decisions was the mechanism established by the General Assembly for review of unemployment insurance claims made by unemployed workers,” he wrote.

Plaintiffs in the case have argued that unresolved delays at the Labor Department have put them at risk of home foreclosure, eviction and car repossession.

“The Court is mindful of the impact on Plaintiffs of untimely processed claims, being placed on-hold status, and other delays associated with unemployment insurance benefits,” Nugent wrote. “This is especially true considering the COVID-19 pandemic. The responsibility for resolving these issues, however, has been placed with the Department.”

The Unemployed Workers Union, which filed the lawsuit, released a statement after the judge’s order, calling the delays some claimants still face “an absolute disgrace.”

“Families have been made bankrupt and left without food and necessities,” Alec Summerfield and Sharon Black, attorneys for the group, said in a statement. “The fight will continue. The Unemployed Workers Union will utilize every means necessary to secure the benefits thousands of people are still owed.”

At a legislative hearing last week, Robinson told lawmakers that her agency had successfully processed 97.9% of the 863,806 claims that had been filed, paying out $14.2 billion to 717,448 Marylanders deemed eligible.

About 15% of those who applied — just under 130,000 people — had claims denied. The 2.1% of claims that remained “pending” last week as the agency attempts to investigate an unprecedented level of fraud represented 17,894 applications, she said.

Earlier this summer, a different judge heard emergency arguments on other claims in the case, which sought to bar Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) from ending enhanced federal unemployment payments in July. A judge issued an injunction in that case and the expanded payments continued through Labor Day, when federal funding expired.

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