The Bulletin

Virginia officials ask to delay lawsuit over unemployment insurance delays

By: - May 5, 2021 11:49 am

Virginia’s state flag flies in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Employment Commission asked a judge this week for extra time to respond to a class-action lawsuit over long delays processing jobless claims.

The request drew a mocking response from the plaintiffs’ lawyers and was largely rejected by a federal judge, who limited the extension to just four days. The state had requested three weeks.

“In defense of a lawsuit premised on the allegation that the VEC cannot timely respond to Virginians seeking federal insured unemployment, the VEC suggests that it also cannot timely respond to them here,” wrote lawyers for the plaintiffs who have been waiting months for benefits. “If this defendant, with all its resources and what should be both a legal and political motivation to avoid delay, cannot answer a fairly simple complaint 30 days after first receiving a copy, the VEC has bigger problems still.”

Virginia has struggled to keep with a surge of unemployment insurance claims since the pandemic began, continuing to rank last in the country in key federal performance benchmarks.

Virginia still ranks last in nation for quickly resolving issues with unemployment insurance claims

A coalition of legal aid groups, led by Charlottesville’s Legal Aid Justice Center and the private law firm Consumer Litigation Associates, filed the lawsuit last month on behalf of five residents around the state after concluding the state was making no serious efforts to improve the situation, which has left thousands waiting months for what are intended to be emergency benefits.

The Virginia Employment Commission’s lawyers contended in a filing that the standard 30-day deadline to respond was insufficient given the complexity of the case. They posited that there would be no harm in granting additional time.

“The scope of this lawsuit is broad and the issues presented are factually complex,” the commission’s lawyer wrote. “There are complex issues bearing on this court’s subject matter jurisdiction that require thoughtful consideration. Counsel requires additional time to investigate and analyze these claims so that it may fulfill its professional obligations to (Virginia Employment Commissioner Ellen Marie) Hess to conduct an appropriate factual investigation and present a well-reasoned response to this court and the parties.”

Lawyers for the plaintiff countered that none of the issues raised in the lawsuit were new to the Virginia Employment Commission, noting they had first brought their concerns to the state six months ago.

And unlike the state, they worried that additional delays would lead to significant harm.

“Defendant’s failures have led to homelessness, hunger and misery for vulnerable citizens who have the legal right to expect that its government follows the Constitution and statutory law, and those harms continue each day this process is delayed,” they wrote.

U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson appeared to agree with the plaintiffs, writing in his motion that he was limiting the extension to just four days.

“In the interests of securing a just and speedy determination of plaintiffs’ claims, this matter demands immediate attention,” Hudson wrote. “Delays in this particular case may well have concrete and immediate impacts on Virginians struggling to make ends meet during a global pandemic.”

This story was updated to reflect the judge’s ruling Wednesday on the request for the delay.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.