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Judge orders Maryland to stay in extended jobless benefits program

A Baltimore City Circuit Court judge has ordered the state to continue to participate in a federal program that pays additional benefits to unemployed workers.

Maryland had continued to pay the benefits as part of an order issued before the Independence Day holiday. Circuit Court Judge Lawerence Fletcher-Hill extended that order Tuesday just before his initial order was set to expire. The latest order will likely be the final word in this case as a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan said the state will not appeal.

“We fundamentally disagree with today’s decision,” said Michael Ricci, a Hogan spokesman. “This lawsuit is hurting our small businesses, jeopardizing our economic recovery, and will cause significant job loss. Most states have already ended enhanced benefits, and the White House and the U.S. Department of Labor have affirmed that states have every right to do so. While we firmly believe the law is on our side, actual adjudication of the case would extend beyond the end of the federal programs, foregoing the possibility of pursuing the matter further.”

Fletcher-Hill’s order ends more than two weeks of legal wrangling, which included appears to the Court of Special Appeals and Court of Appeals, and political hand-wringing that started last month soon after Hogan announced he would opt out of the federal program that pays up to $300 per week on top of standard benefits. The payments also go to workers who have exhausted all other benefits or to gig and self-employed workers who would not traditionally be included in unemployment programs.

More than two dozen states have similarly withdrawn from the program.

In Maryland, two groups of plaintiffs filed lawsuits seeking to prevent Hogan and Maryland Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson from withdrawing from the program.

In those filings, plaintiffs argued that the move was discriminatory to some unemployed workers who would no longer receive benefits while others continued to collect state benefits.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that withdrawing from the program would cause irreparable harm to the unemployed and deprive the state economy of an important stimulus stemming from spending on rent and other items.

They also argued that the governor had been effectively barred from withdrawing from the program in the passage and enactment of a state law this year that required that the state “cooperate with the United States Secretary of Labor to the fullest extent that this title allows.”

Hogan’s attorneys argued that the language did not and could not require the state to participate in a program and only applied to the administration of programs and obtaining reimbursements for covered expenses from the federal government.

Fletcher-Hill, while accepting the bulk of the plaintiff’s claims, rejected arguments that ending the benefit was discriminatory.

“The classifications that have been made have been made at a program level. For example, benefits have been extended to individuals who are or were self-employed even though they previously were not qualified for unemployment benefits,” wrote in a 25-page opinion. “Or an amount – currently $300 per week – has been added to whatever benefits a class of eligible or once-eligible workers receive. The Governor’s action would end benefits for whole classes of recipients at the program level, with no discrimination within each separate program.

“If the result is that one person is left with no benefits at all while another person retains some benefits under a remaining program, the reason is not because the early termination treats similarly situated people differently but because some people have some remaining residual eligibility under the standard unemployment benefit program. Put another way, any discrimination or differentiation would result from the eligibility criteria of the programs themselves. Those distinctions were created when the individual programs were created and are not the result of the early termination of certain programs. ”

The judge, however, agreed that ending the program would cause irreparable harm to those who are receiving the payments and are dependent upon them.

“Plaintiffs have been strained economically and emotionally by the pandemic,” Fletcher-Hill wrote. “In its global scope and in the anxiety that almost all people experience over the threat of disease, the impact of the pandemic has been universal, but the brief stories of these Plaintiffs reminds the Court that the impact of the pandemic has been cruelly uneven. Some have suffered death or debilitating illness themselves, in their families, or among their friends. Others have experienced severe economic hardship from involuntary unemployment or the inability to work because of the need to take on childcare and elder care responsibilities. As one who has enjoyed the privilege of continuous, secure employment, the Court is particularly struck by the plight of those who have had to struggle with irregular or no employment.”

Those affected by the termination would not likely be able to get benefits back if an injunction were not issued and a court later determined the program should not have been terminated early, Fletcher-Hill wrote.

Similarly, the judge rejected the interpretation of the cooperation language passed by the General Assembly as well as arguments that such a requirement violated the concepts of federalism in that it would require the state to accept a federal program.

“Defendants ignore almost completely the stronger phrase in the statute: ‘to the fullest extent,'” wrote Fletcher-Hill. “This is plain language of maximization, especially when associated with the command ‘shall.’ This Court is not free to ignore the General Assembly’s mandatory direction that the Maryland Secretary must go as far as possible in cooperation with the United States Secretary of Labor to achieve ‘a common end or objective.'”

Fletcher-Hill added that the benefits are not being forced upon the state by the federal government but instead, the legislature has required the state to accept those benefits.

“The regulation of governmental power here is not between the two sovereigns of the United States and Maryland governments, it is between the two policy-making branches of State government,” the judge wrote. “The General Assembly has used strong language to require maximization of effort in relation to the federal government in providing unemployment relief for Maryland residents. The Maryland Secretary is bound by Maryland law, not federal law, to maximize those available benefits.”

The judge’s order was praised by Sen. Jim Rosapepe, D-Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties, and Del. Lorig Charkoudian, D-Montgomery, sponsors of the legislation Fletcher-Hill said required the state to accept the supplemental payments.

“We wrote the language because we were afraid Governor Hogan would be tempted to put Republican politics before the interests of Maryland working families,” Rosapepe and Charkoudian said in a statement.

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