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Judge rejects court order in Florida unemployment case

James Call
USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau
Winter Haven News Chief

A circuit judge on Thursday decided not to immediately order the state to "fix" Florida's unemployment compensation system, but a lawsuit over the much-maligned process will go on.

Judge John Cooper sat through several hours of testimony this week, starting on Tuesday, on whether he had the authority to tell the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) how to run Florida's unemployment benefits scheme.

In the end, he sided with the state's lawyers that such a request was too vague, not practical and at odds with the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers, which limits what one branch of government can tell another to do.

"I can't grant just an open-ended injunction (or court order) that says, 'Do whatever it takes to fix it,' " Cooper said. "I don't have any evidence from any witness what specifically needs to be done to fix this system. We can't even agree on what 'fixing' means."

The ruling came in a class-action lawsuit filed last month on behalf of hundreds of thousands who were thrown out of work by the coronavirus pandemic and unable to successfully navigate an online application process that crashes and reportedly loses information.

The system buckled under the influx of a record number of applications — roughly 1.95 million since March 15 — when the coronavirus shut down the economy. About 600,000 people still have claims that were rejected or are under appeal and another 328,000 still unaddressed.

Tallahassee attorneys Marie Mattox and Gautier Kitchen sought an injunction for immediate relief for 16 named plaintiffs who say they've been rejected or held up, and for thousands of others caught in "similar circumstances."

They're preparing for a jury trial against DEO and Deloitte, the company that designed the software and site. The attorneys wanted Cooper to order DEO to fix the system immediately and pay out claims that have been submitted.

Last week, Cooper rejected the state's arguments to kill the suit, and held hearings over two days this week.

Daniel Nordby, DEO's outside attorney, said an injunction would be inappropriate: Since the Legislature created the system and told DEO to administer it, the courts can't step in and tell the executive branch how to perform that task.

Cooper said he understands people are suffering but agreed with Nordby.

He added: "The case is not over ... I haven't dismissed the case ... I'm not saying there is no likelihood of success on the negligence (and) damages part, breach of fiduciary duties or any of those issues."

The lawsuit alleges negligence and breach of fiduciary duty by DEO, and breach of contract and product liability against Deloitte, the company that built the CONNECT website used to apply for unemployment benefits.

Maddox and Kitchen intend to argue that the system was designed to frustrate applicants. They point to four audits in seven years that flagged flaws that went unrepaired.

Under cross examination, former DEO call center employee Matthew Beggarly told Kitchen he was fed up with the state's inability to help callers with their claims.

"Our job was really to placate people and to just sit there and, you know, do as minimal (work) as possible," he said. "Just so people feel warm and fuzzy."

Beggarly said he voiced concerns about not being able to process claims — only to be fired.

James Call is a member of the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at jcall@tallahassee.com. Follow on him Twitter: @CallTallahassee