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Judge Weighs Battle Over Florida’s Trouble-Prone Unemployment System

A sign that hangs on a door reads "sorry, we're closed"
Tim Mossholder/Unsplash
A Leon County circuit judge is mulling whether to allow a potential class-action lawsuit. 19 plaintiffs say persistent problems with Florida’s online unemployment system, known as CONNECT, have prevented them from getting benefits.

After four hours of arguments Monday, a Leon County circuit judge will decide whether to move forward with a potential class-action lawsuit stemming from massive problems in Florida’s unemployment-compensation system.

Attorneys for the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity and Deloitte Consulting, a contractor that helped put the online system in place in 2013, argued that Judge John Cooper should dismiss the lawsuit, which was filed after a crush of coronavirus-caused unemployment claims overwhelmed the system this spring.

The lawsuit makes a series of allegations, including negligence and breach of fiduciary duty. Cooper last month rejected a preliminary injunction that plaintiffs sought to force the Department of Economic Opportunity to “fix” the system.

Department of Economic Opportunity attorney Daniel Nordby argued Monday, in part, that the lawsuit should be dismissed because of the constitutional separation of powers between judges and the executive branch. He said decisions by the department “involve a great deal of discretion” that cannot be second-guessed by judges under the separation of powers.

But Marie Mattox, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the department is required by law to properly maintain the system and that three audits said the system needed changes before the problems this year. She said properly maintaining and operating the system was not a discretionary duty.

Cooper was not specific about when he will rule on the motions by the state and Deloitte to dismiss the case, though he indicated he expected the issues to ultimately go to the 1st District Court of Appeal. He also seemed to be considering dismissing at least parts of the case but allowing the plaintiffs to file an amended complaint.

“Do you want to get up to the DCA quicker, or do you want to drag it out?” Cooper said at one point to Mattox.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys filed the lawsuit in April after major problems with Florida’s CONNECT online unemployment system, which even Gov. Ron DeSantis has described as a “jalopy.” The state scrambled to take steps to shore up the system, but many people who lost jobs when the pandemic shuttered businesses remained frustrated as they tried to get benefits.

Deloitte has sought to distance itself from the problem, saying in court documents it has not been involved with the CONNECT system for more than five years. Deloitte attorney John Boudet on Monday disputed the legal arguments made by the plaintiffs, while acknowledging the frustrations of many people who sought benefits.

“I don’t mean to minimize them in the least,” Boudet said. “But this lawsuit is not the right place to address those concerns.”

But when Cooper asked, at one point, whether the state or Deloitte was at fault for the problems, Mattox quickly responded, “It’s both.”

With Florida’s unemployment rate hitting 14.5 percent in May, the state paid 1.47 million claimants from March 15 to Sunday, according to the Department of Economic Opportunity. Meanwhile, 479,161 people had been determined ineligible for benefits.

Gina Jordan is the host of Morning Edition for WFSU News. Gina is a Tallahassee native and graduate of Florida State University. She spent 15 years working in news/talk and country radio in Orlando before becoming a reporter and All Things Considered host for WFSU in 2008. Follow Gina: @hearyourthought on Twitter. Click below for Gina's full bio.