Lawyers for two workers whose unemployment benefits were halted during a fraud investigation have asked the Washington state Supreme Court to force the state Employment Security Department to restart those payments as quickly as possible.
In a petition for a “writ of mandamus,” filed late Friday afternoon, attorneys say Suzi LeVine, commissioner of the Employment Security Department (ESD), lacked the “express authority” to stop unemployment benefits payments while her agency investigated a massive fraud.
It was the second such petition filed last week.
The fraud, which ESD officials first disclosed in May, reportedly resulted in the theft of between $550 million to $650 million by cyber-criminals who used stolen identities to file tens of thousands of bogus unemployment insurance claims in Washington during the coronavirus pandemic. On Thursday, the agency said it has recovered $333 million.
In an effort to halt the fraud, ESD paused payments to tens of thousands of claimants so it could carefully document their identities. But that process, which required claimants to provide personal documents to ESD, has resulted in weeks of delays of legitimate payments to thousands of workers in Washington.
Friday’s petition was brought on behalf of workers McKeezi Taylor Barraza of Seattle and Marianne White of Burien as well as the Unemployment Law Project, a Seattle- and Spokane-based nonprofit that advises workers on unemployment claims.
The petition, first reported Friday by NW News Network, contends that ESD and LeVine lacked authority to suspend benefit payments without a hearing and asks the court to direct the agency to resume the payments as quickly as possible.
ESD “cannot take this benefit away from people … without a hearing, without due process,” said Justin Abbasi, an attorney with Seattle-based Sheridan Law Firm, which filed the petition. The petition also contends that the state is violating a federal law that requires state unemployment agencies to make prompt payments “when due.”
Unlike a class action lawsuit, which seeks damages, a writ of mandamus asks a court to order a government official to fulfill their legal obligations.
“Based on ESD’s failures generally, and ESD’s irresponsible response to addressing the fraud activity specifically, claimants are unfairly prejudiced to their peril,” contends the petition.
A spokesperson for the ESD did not respond to request for comment Friday or Saturday.
Friday’s petition was the second filed in connection with LeVine, ESD, and the fraud scheme.
On Monday, Sumas resident Hamal Strand filed a petition for a writ of mandamus against LeVine for pausing his and other claimants’ payments during the fraud investigation.
In an interview Saturday, Strand, who is acting as his own attorney, said that after he filed his petition, he was contacted several times by an official from the State Attorney General’s office. Strand said the official, Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Pitel, told him that his stalled benefits payments had been restarted and expressed the hope that Strand would withdraw the petition.
Strand said he did not have any evidence that Pitel had somehow resolved Strand’s stalled benefits claim, but that Pitel appeared to have checked on the status of Strand’s claim.
“He didn’t hint that his office had any effect on it or anything else like that,” Strand said. “He just said, it seems to us that your money problem’s going to be fixed — they’re going to release the funds and so, you know, sometime next week we’ll get in contact, and hopefully we can resolve this before it goes to court.” But in Saturday’s interview, Strand said he wouldn’t withdraw the petition until all stalled claims were resolved.
A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office was unable to confirm Saturday that Pitel had spoken with Strand or Strand’s account of the conversations.
Last week’s petitions may be the first legal actions over the ESD’s claims process since the start of the pandemic. The agency received such a massive increase in the number of unemployment claims that it fell behind in processing them all, resulting in long payment delays for tens of thousands of jobless workers.
Those problems were compounded by the discovery of the fraud, which led the agency to take extra steps to verify claims before paying benefits. As part of those measures, the agency paused the claims of roughly 200,000 claimants and asked claimants to provide extra documentation verifying their identity.
On Thursday, LeVine said ESD reduced the number of stalled cases to 140,000 and expected to clear another 50,000 within a few days, but acknowledged that “unfortunately for some, however, it will still take longer.”
Friday’s petition questions whether the ESD had the authority to unilaterally suspend payments to any claimants who had been receiving benefits and would otherwise be eligible to continue receiving benefits.
“If someone is receiving a benefit and they’re entitled to that benefit because of their status as someone being unemployed through no fault of their own…you can’t deprive them of that benefit without due process,” Abbasi said. “And what they’ve done here is worse than that — they’re basically calling people fraudsters, when they’ve done nothing wrong. They’re just trying to get their benefits.”
Abbasi said petitioners aren’t suggesting the ESD stop combating fraud, just that the agency not force people with legitimate claims to “bear some of the responsibility” for halting the crime.