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Single mom, others kicked off unemployment and told to repay money prompts lawsuit against Mass. Department of Unemployment Assistance

Community Legal Aid has sued the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance after the department halted weekly benefits for five workers and demanded repayment, officials said.

The lawsuit alleges that the department’s conduct violates state and federal laws, including the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause, as workers who claim benefits have the right to receive notice, and an opportunity to be heard, before DUA stops paying benefits. Director of DUA Richard Jeffers is named in the suit.

DUA initially approved claims for the workers, a nurse, nursing assistant, machinist, payroll professional, and plant manager for a local food manufacturer, according to the statement. But weeks later, the payments allegedly stopped with no notice to the plaintiffs or opportunity for a hearing.

“At its core, due process requires our government to inform a person why her freedom or property might be taken away, and to give the person a meaningful chance to oppose the government’s position. Unemployment benefits are ‘property’ under the law. That’s why DUA’s own regulations require notice and hearings,” said CLA Litigation Director Leigh Woodruff.

“These Massachusetts workers did not choose to lose their paychecks in a global pandemic,” Woodruff continued. “But DUA’s actions are forcing them to accumulate credit card debt and even cash out their 401Ks just to buy food and pay bills, and stress is making workers sick.”

One of the defendants, a single mother of an 8-year-old daughter who is severely disabled and nonverbal, stopped receiving payments in August and UI Online lists the status of her benefits as on “hold.” Without the benefits, the woman has suffered financially in addition to non-economic harms, including “slippage in her daughter’s developmental progress due to inability to afford disability-assistive devices; extreme stress, worry, anxiety, and insomnia; adverse effects on her relationships; and a stress-induced outbreak of the painful disease called ‘Shingles,’” the lawsuit reads.

Community Legal Aid last week served a motion for a preliminary injunction that would order the department to immediately stop depriving workers of benefits without due process, according to the statement.

The injunction is needed to protect workers from debt, stress-induced health problems and being evicted, as Massachusetts’ eviction moratorium was lifted in October, Community Legal Aid contends.

“These are exactly the kinds of harm that unemployment benefits are supposed to prevent,” Woodruff said.

Community Legal Aid, which provides free civil legal services to the low-income and elderly residents in Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire and Worcester counties, said it expects a decision on the motion by December.

The lawsuit seeks a declaration that DUA’s practices in these cases violate the following federal and state laws: the Social Security Act, the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, Massachusetts’ Unemployment Insurance Law, and DUA’s own regulations, among other relief.

The state GDP contracted by 43.8% and unemployment reached 17.7% in Massachusetts in June. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, unemployment across the country has reached its highest level since the Great Depression.

“These numbers have not been seen since the 1930s, and DUA has a duty to provide the benefits that Congress created to help working families in this situation. It is no excuse for DUA to say: ‘We are too busy to get this right,’” Woodruff said.

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