Florida judge to weigh lawsuit on unemployment options

TALLAHASSEE – Almost a year after the COVID-19 pandemic began kicking people off work, a judge is once again ready to consider a potential class action lawsuit stemming from major issues in Florida’s unemployment benefits system.

Leon County Circuit judge John Cooper is expected to hear arguments Tuesday over whether he helped the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity and Deloitte Consulting, LLP, a contractor who helped set up CONNECT, the state’s online unemployment scheme, in 2013 to reject.

Cooper dismissed an earlier version of the lawsuit in September, but gave plaintiffs the opportunity to file a revised complaint. The case seeks damages and raises several arguments, including that the department and Deloitte were negligent and breached a fiduciary duty.

“The DEO (the department) has violated its duty of loyalty to hundreds of thousands of Floridians who are now waiting for their life support and receiving payment after the roadblock,” reads the revised complaint filed November 16 by plaintiffs’ attorneys , Gautier Kitchen and Marie Mattox. “The damage caused by harming the accused multiplies daily as people lose homes, cars, savings and dignity.”

In motions to dismiss the case, the division’s attorneys and Deloitte said plaintiffs reiterated arguments contained in Cooper’s September version of the case.

They claim Cooper should also oppose the latest version for a number of reasons: the constitutional separation of powers between the courts and the executive branch of government; sovereign immunity, which helps protect government agencies from lawsuits; and the lack of a legal basis for demonstrating fiduciary duty.

“Simply put, the (version of the November case) is essentially indistinguishable from what the court has already found flawed and does not provide the court with reconsidering its earlier conclusions,” wrote Deloitte lawyers on December 7, motion to dismiss the case.

The CONNECT system was overwhelmed after the pandemic hit the state in March and companies were forced to shut down or drastically reduce operations. The state tried to shore up the system, but many people who had lost their jobs remained frustrated as they tried to take advantage – Governor Ron DeSantis even described the system as “Jalopy”.

Plaintiffs filed the potential class action lawsuit in April. Cooper turned down a restraining order in May that plaintiffs wanted the Department of Economic Opportunities to “fix” the system.

Cooper’s September 30 decision to dismiss the case gave no detailed reasons, merely saying that he “granted the motion to dismiss on the grounds put forward by the defendants,” while allowing plaintiffs to subsequently file the revised version.

During a hearing in June, Department of Economic Opportunities attorney Daniel Nordby argued, in part, that the constitutional separation of powers case should be dismissed. He said the department’s decisions “involve a great deal of discretion” that cannot be questioned by segregated judges.

According to a Ministry of Economic Opportunities website, the unemployment system had processed more than 5.16 million applications since March 15, of which 2.36 million were found to be eligible. The system had paid $ 22.2 billion in benefits, with most of the money flowing through the state from the federal government.

From JIM SAUNDERS Florida News Service

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