TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Nearly a year after the COVID-19 pandemic began tossing people out of work, a circuit judge is again poised to consider a potential class-action lawsuit stemming from major problems in Florida’s unemployment compensation system.
Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper is scheduled Tuesday to hear arguments about whether he should dismiss the lawsuit filed against the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity and Deloitte Consulting, LLP, a contractor that helped put the state’s CONNECT online unemployment system in place in 2013.
Cooper in September dismissed an earlier version of the lawsuit but gave the plaintiffs an opportunity to file a revised complaint. The case seeks damages and raises several arguments, including that the department and Deloitte were negligent and breached a fiduciary duty.
“DEO (the department) breached its fiduciary duty to the hundreds of thousands of Floridians who now await their life-sustaining funds and encounter roadblock after roadblock to payment,” said the revised lawsuit, filed Nov. 16 by plaintiffs’ attorneys Gautier Kitchen and Marie Mattox. “The damages flowing from defendants’ breach multiply daily as people lose homes, cars, savings and dignity.”
But in motions to dismiss the case, attorneys for the department and Deloitte said the plaintiffs are repeating arguments that were in the version of the case rejected by Cooper in September.
They contend Cooper should also dismiss the latest version for a series of reasons, including the constitutional separation of powers between courts and the executive branch of government; sovereign immunity, which helps shield government agencies from lawsuits; and a lack of a legal basis for showing a fiduciary duty.
“Simply put, the (version of the case filed in November) is substantively indistinguishable from the one the court has already found to be deficient and provides no basis for the court to revisit its prior conclusions,” Deloitte attorneys wrote in a Dec. 7 motion to dismiss the case.
The CONNECT system was overwhelmed after the pandemic slammed into the state in March and forced businesses to shut down or dramatically scale back operations. The state scrambled to shore up the system, but many people who lost jobs remained frustrated as they tried to get benefits -- with Gov. Ron DeSantis even describing the system as a “jalopy.”
The plaintiffs filed the potential class-action lawsuit in April. Cooper in May rejected a preliminary injunction that plaintiffs sought to force the Department of Economic Opportunity to “fix” the system.
Cooper’s Sept. 30 order dismissing the case did not give detailed reasons, saying only that he “grants the motion to dismiss on the grounds argued by the defendants,” while allowing plaintiffs to subsequently file the revised version.
During a June hearing, Department of Economic Opportunity attorney Daniel Nordby argued, in part, that the lawsuit should be dismissed because of the constitutional separation of powers. He said decisions by the department “involve a great deal of discretion” that cannot be second-guessed by judges under the separation of powers.
As of a Thursday count, the unemployment system had processed more than 5.16 million claims since March 15, with 2.36 million found to be eligible, according to the Department of Economic Opportunity’s website. The system had paid about $22.2 billion in benefits, with the most of that money flowing through the state from the federal government.