Lawyers rush to get Maryland unemployment lawsuits reviewed with clock ticking on benefits

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With the clock ticking on federal unemployment benefits in Maryland, lawyers for jobless residents were working Thursday evening to get a judge to review two lawsuits that seek to force the state to continue the payments.

Both cases were brought by unemployed Marylanders and center on Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision to end federal pandemic benefits. The state plans to end the programs Saturday.

Attorneys with the Public Justice Center and the Unemployed Workers Union, which organized the separate lawsuits, scrambled Thursday to get a last-minute hearing scheduled in Baltimore Circuit Court before the state stops paying the benefits.

If a hearing is scheduled, it is likely to be held Friday afternoon on Zoom, according to an email attorneys received from the court Thursday evening.

They want a judge to issue an order stopping Maryland from cutting off the federal aid, which provides $300 weekly supplements and helps people not typically covered by unemployment insurance, such as the self-employed.

The federal government authorized the benefits until September, but Hogan announced June 1 that Maryland would end them early, citing job growth and employer complaints of “severe worker shortages.” About two dozen other Republican-led states have also moved to halt the payments.

Lawyers for the unemployed say many people who lost work because of the pandemic still cannot find jobs and that ending the federal benefits is cutting off a lifeline for thousands of Maryland families.

Over the last two days, lawyers representing Hogan and Maryland Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson unsuccessfully tried to move the cases to federal court.

They said in legal filings that federal court had jurisdiction, arguing among other reasons that the matter “rises and falls with this Court’s interpretation of the CARES Act,” the federal law that has provided supplemental jobless benefits.

But after hearing arguments Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Richard D. Bennett agreed with lawyers for the plaintiffs in the case filed Wednesday by the Public Justice Center, who said the case belonged in state court. Their lawsuit claims that Hogan and Robinson have violated their obligations under state law and the Maryland Constitution.

“Federal question jurisdiction does not automatically arise merely because there are federal funds involved,” Bennett said in a telephone court proceeding before issuing an order later Thursday remanding the case to Baltimore Circuit Court. “The law’s abundantly clear on that.”

State agencies are typically represented by the Maryland Attorney General’s Office, but attorneys from the private law firm Venable are now representing Hogan and Robinson. Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat, has publicly opposed Hogan’s decision to end the pandemic unemployment benefits.

With time running out, plaintiff’s attorney Robbie Leonard said lawyers representing the unemployed will keep up their fight until the end.

“We’re confident in our pleadings ... and we know that we’re fighting on the right side,” said Leonard, who is working with the Unemployed Workers Union.

A similar case is playing out in Indiana, where a judge last week granted a preliminary injunction ordering that state to continue to paying the federal benefits there.

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