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Jobless Marylanders file federal lawsuit over delays in unemployment benefits

State Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson, shown at a 2020 news conference, is the target of a potential class-action lawsuit from a group of unemployed Maryland residents upset at how their jobless claims were handled. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

A group of unemployed Marylanders has filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against state Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson, claiming that the problems they faced in receiving jobless benefits violate federal law.

The group, which filed the lawsuit Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Maryland, is also seeking an injunction that would force Maryland’s Department of Labor to speed up its handling of unemployment claims.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, thousands of people who lost their jobs have claimed that Maryland’s unemployment system was slow to process their claims or nearly impossible to navigate. The federal suit is the latest legal action that seeks to force quicker and more efficient processing of unemployment claims.

A previous lawsuit in Baltimore City Circuit Court failed this month when a judge ruled that the plaintiffs could not bypass the Department of Labor’s claims and appeals process by turning to the courts.

The latest lawsuit focuses instead on the department’s obligations under federal law, said Tyra Robinson, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

“Tens of thousands of people are still unable to access benefits to get their basic needs met,” Robinson said. “That’s why we wanted to file the lawsuit at this time.”

Joseph Farren, the chief strategy officer for the office of Labor Secretary Robinson, said in a statement that the department has paid out over $14 billion in unemployment benefits since the start of the pandemic.

“Coming on the heels of a similar lawsuit that was just dismissed by a siting judge, this meritless action will only divert valuable taxpayer funds and resources from efforts to help our fellow citizens get back on their feet and into the workforce,” Farren said.

The lawsuit proposes three classes of plaintiffs: one made up of unemployment claimants who did not receive a payment or an appealable denial of benefits within three weeks of filing their claims; another made up of claimants who stopped receiving their benefits without explanation; and another made up of claimants who have received overpayment notices.

The suit claims that Maryland makes timely determinations and payments for just 43.2% of new unemployment claims and ranks 44th among U.S. states in making payments within a federally mandated three-week window.

The complaint also includes claims from Marylanders whose unemployment benefits have been delayed or who have been told they were overpaid substantially and must repay the money. One man named in the complaint has been “unable to pay for some of his medications, worsening his asthma,” and allegedly has still not received payments he first applied for in May of 2021.

Another man was told he owed nearly $30,000 in overpayments but was not offered an opportunity to contest the finding, according to the complaint.

The two-count complaint alleges that the plaintiffs’ due process rights under the U.S. Constitution have been violated. It asks a judge to certify the three proposed classes of plaintiffs and to prohibit the Department of Labor from continuing its “unlawful and unconstitutional” handling of unemployment claims.

The department has not filed a response in federal court.

U.S. District Judge George L. Russell III, who is assigned to the case, has not yet ruled on the motion for a preliminary injunction.

Though the previous lawsuit ultimately failed in Circuit Court, it succeeded in forcing state leaders to keep Maryland enrolled in federal programs that paid additional benefits to unemployed workers.

Gov. Larry Hogan tried to opt out of the federal programs early, citing his belief that the additional payments were keeping employees from returning to work.

Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Lawerence Fletcher-Hill ruled in July that ending the federal payments early could cause irreparable harm to jobless Marylanders. Hogan did not appeal the ruling and let the payments expire in September as scheduled instead of ending them early.