Another chance in unemployment lawsuit scheduled for Monday

by Erin Beck

A second hearing in a lawsuit against West Virginia officials over the termination of pandemic-related unemployment benefits is scheduled for Monday.

Kanawha Circuit Judge Maryclaire Akers denied one procedural request from the plaintiffs, who were represented by the nonprofit law firm Mountain State Justice, on Thursday morning. But the plaintiffs will have another chance to make their case on Monday at 3 p.m., in Akers’ courtroom in the Charleston judicial annex.

Source: WV Center on Budget and Policy

Governor Jim Justice, saying that businesses were struggling to find workers, ended federal programs providing enhanced benefits, including $300 extra dollars per week, to unemployed workers affected by COVID-19 on June 19.  The enhanced benefits, part of the federal CARES Act, had also helped self-employed and gig workers, as well as those who had run out of benefits.

Last month,  Rebecca Urie, of Charleston, and Kimberly Griffith, of South Charleston, filed lawsuits in Kanawha County against Scott Adkins, Commissioner of Workforce West Virginia. Workforce West Virginia is the state agency that administers unemployment benefits.

Urie is a single mother supporting two children with autism, the lawsuit states. Griffith is a 56-year-old South Charleston woman. They are represented by Bren Pomponio and Laura Davidson, lawyers for the Charleston-based Mountain State Justice.

Justice, and Adkins, who had followed Justice’ orders, have not responded to requests for comment.

But in a response earlier this week, Adkins, represented by West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, argued that Mountain State Justice had made procedural errors.

The plaintiffs asked the judge for a writ of mandamus and injunctive relief. According to West Virginia state law, an elected official “may be compelled to perform his or her duty by writ of mandamus.” They also asked for injunctive relief “to require the immediate continued administration” of benefits, and for a temporary restraining order.

Adkins argued that the law prohibits plaintiffs from filing simultaneous petitions for both a writ of mandamus and for injunctive relief.

Quoting another case (Backus v. Abbot), he wrote that “[w]hen the same relief sought by mandatory injunction in a suit in equity” can instead by sought by “a proceeding in mandamus, a court of equity is without jurisdiction to entertain such suit for injunctive relief.”

He also argued that the court doesn’t have the authority to force the state to enter into a new agreement with the federal government to provide enhanced unemployment benefits, since those benefits have already ended.

“I think it’s clear that injunctive relief here is not appropriate because the benefits have stopped,” Akers said, according to MetroNews.

In a phone call, Pomponio, explaining why he asked for multiple forms of relief, said some courts are unfamiliar with writs of mandamus.

“I was just trying to provide some flexibility,” he said.

Plaintiffs had argued that state law requires Adkins to secure “all advantages available” for unemployed workers. They pointed to West Virginia code 21A-2-16, which states:

“In the administration of this chapter the commissioner shall cooperate with the United States department of labor to the fullest extent consistent with the provisions of this chapter, and shall take such action through the adoption of appropriate rules, regulations, administrative methods and standards, as may be necessary to secure to this state and its citizens all advantages available under the provisions of the ‘Social Security Act’ which relate to unemployment compensation, the ‘Federal Unemployment Tax Act,’ the ‘Wagner-Peyser Act,’ and the ‘Federal-State Extended Unemployment Compensation Act of 1970.'”

Adkins essentially argued that West Virginia’s law does not say the commissioner must secure all benefits available under the CARES Act, which provided enhanced unemployment benefits. It mentions other federal laws instead, like the Social Security Act.

In the phone call, Pomponio noted that the CARES Act wasn’t enacted when the relevant law was written. He also argued that it was clear lawmakers wanted Workforce WV to “fully cooperate” with the federal government to get all benefits possible.

Adkins had countered that lawmakers could have amended the law to include the CARES Act if that was their intention.

Urie, who has provided updates about the lawsuit in a public Facebook group focused on problems with the state’s unemployment system, wrote Thursday that Akers’ decision was expected and encouraged others to “keep the faith.”

“It is NOT over,” she wrote. “We knew we would not get a restraining order to stop something that had already stopped. It is procedure.”

Adkins also argued that workers were making more on unemployment than pre-pandemic wages. However, the left-leaning West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy says that while state unemployment claims “have been dropping steadily throughout the year, they were actually decreasing faster when the $300 federal enhanced benefit was in place than they have been since ending the benefits.” They say Justice’ decision to terminate benefits may be hurting the economy.

Erin Beck is our Kids’ Health Correspondent. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter

Categories: Policy

6 Comments

Ruth Starr · August 15, 2021 at

Why do you think , there’s a been no news cameras down at the Court House (outside) You would think messing with people lives would be just as important as a WREAK or road clousures, ECT?? Thank you

    Chris Frye · August 16, 2021 at

    Thought AG was supposed to be looking out for the people!? But again our governor says he is for west Virginians too! What kind of governor takes money away from his people in his state so that the local dairy freeze can serve soft ice cream! When was the last time you heard of cooperation,or any new jobs coming in to the state!!? Complete opposite!! These politicians don’t care about us!,it’s a steady paycheck in a state with very few of those!! God help all of us!

      Teresa G Sannicolas · August 25, 2021 at

      Yep not to mention our Govenor recieved over 600 million dollars to help implement programs and for the expense of unemployment. Not to put 200 mil and 12mil in road fixes that yes are needed. What about the people I say everyone who has been negatively impacted by this loss of income we should appear at that hearing. !!!!!

Teresa G Sannicolas · August 25, 2021 at

This judge was appointed by the wv Govenor. What the heck??? What chance do the people have against him he is filthy stinking rich!! This is unfair we the people need to do something about him. I read in the paper hes ha ing financial issues with his many off shore accounts. Why offshore accounts? Perhaps hes using the intended money for wv citizens to clean his own financial problems. How many judges are in his pocket?

Teresa G Sannicolas · August 25, 2021 at

We knew that was going to happen. What a surprise.

Thomas J sulecki · August 26, 2021 at

My benefits have stop I have used up my 26 weeks won a surprise when I found out that Justice decided to end it I do not think he has the right to affect his people in such a horrendous way how much money does he have in his offshore accounts

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