July 3, 2021
[See updates at the end of the article.]
Six Marylanders filed a lawsuit against Governor Larry Hogan and Maryland Secretary of Labor Tiffany Robinson on June 30, 2021, to halt the state’s early exit from federal pandemic unemployment benefits programs. Represented by the Public Justice Center and Gallagher Evelius & Jones LLP, the plaintiffs allege that the Governor’s and Secretary’s decision violates statutory and constitutional obligations to secure federal unemployment benefits for eligible state residents to the fullest extent possible, and that it violates the equal protection guarantees of Maryland’s Declaration of Rights. Because the loss of these benefits would risk plunging hundreds of thousands of Marylanders into housing instability and poverty, the plaintiffs sought a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief to require the state to continue to administer federal unemployment benefits. Today, July 3, Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill issued a ruling establishing a temporary restraining order that requires the state to continue to provide these benefits for the next ten days while the case moves forward. PJC attorney Sally Dworak-Fisher gave the following statement during a press conference today.
The Public Justice Center is honored to stand with the hundreds of thousands of Marylanders who will continued to receive life-sustaining unemployment benefits – benefits fully funded by the federal government and that bring more than a billion dollars to our state — as a result of the Judge’s thoughtful and well-reasoned decision today. The mission of the Public Justice Center is to pursue systemic change to build a just society, and today – with a decision that will preserve benefits for Marylanders still out of work — we move one step closer to that goal.
We could not have done this without the outstanding work of our team – PJC attorneys Tyra Robinson, Monisha Cherayil, and Deb Gardner, the dedicated attorneys of Gallagher Evelius & Jones – Paul Caiola, Meghan Casey, Hannah Perng, and summer associate Tory Trocchia, the excellent support of UNITE HERE! Local 7, and the workers who shared their experiences of how devastating the immediate loss of benefits would be.
And we are grateful that the Court heard us and found merit in our position. The Court found that we are likely to succeed in showing that Maryland’s Unemployment Insurance (UI) law requires Maryland to receive federal benefits to the maximum extent. In other words, though the Governor and executive branch indisputably have discretion to make public policy judgments in many areas, our state UI statute sets limits on that discretion when it comes to maximizing the receipt of federal UI funds – particularly during a pandemic where the General Assembly recently directed the Department of Labor to find ways to expand access to benefits.
Equally, or perhaps more notable, was the Court’s analysis of the immediate, substantial, and irreparable harm that would result from the plan to terminate benefits at midnight tonight. As the Court so eloquently put it:
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.
In finding that the Order was clearly in the public interest, the Court further noted that “it must also be recognized that continued State participation in the enhanced benefit programs would both continue to support a very large number of individual Marylanders and continue to contribute large amounts of money to the State’s recovering economy.” Indeed, the Court concluded that “at the very least … the benefits of continuing the enhanced benefit programs for Plaintiffs and thousands of Marylanders like them are not limited to the private, personal effect on those people.”
We understand that the Governor has indicated that they will continue to fight this ruling, using taxpayer money to pay a private firm to do so. We find it unfortunate that Governor Hogan wants so badly to continue to try to deny fully federally funded life-sustaining benefits to hundreds of thousands of Marylanders, particularly given the well-reasoned and thorough opinion of the Circuit Court judge. We of course will fight that appeal and hope for a speedy affirmance. In the meantime, we hope that he can be persuaded to change his mind, and remind those who are interested, to call the Governor’s office at: 410-974-3901 1-800-811-8336. MD Relay 1-800-735-2258.
UPDATE, evening of July 3:
Plaintiffs and the Public Justice Center, together with co-counsel Gallagher Evelius & Jones are grateful for the Court of Special Appeals’ swift denial of the Governor’s Motion to Stay, and look forward to the Governor immediately informing the United States Department of Labor that it no longer intends to terminate benefits.
UPDATE, July 6: The Court of Appeals of Maryland dismissed the Governor’s Petition for Certiorari, leaving the Circuit Court’s injunction in place and maintaining federal unemployment insurance benefits. For a summary of what’s happened in the case so far, check out this article in the Baltimore Sun.