Parties in enhanced unemployment payment dispute argue ‘irreparable harm’ in COA briefs

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A group of Hoosier workers and the state of Indiana are arguing over who will be hurt worse in the continued dispute over the flow of federal enhanced unemployment benefits that is now before the Indiana Court of Appeals.

The arguments over irreparable harm as well as the scope and meaning of the state statute governing unemployment benefits are included in the opposing parties’ briefs submitted to the appellate court. At issue is the preliminary injunction issued June 25 by Marion Superior Court which required the state to again begin accepting the enhanced unemployment benefit which equates to about $300 extra per week for jobless Hoosiers.

A group of five individuals, represented by Indiana Legal Services and Macey Swanson, LLP, from around Indiana sued the state after Gov. Eric Holcomb decided Indiana would terminate its participation the extra unemployment benefit program June 19. The Court of Appeals declined the state’s motion to stay the lower court’s ruling and is now considering the state’s attempt to get the preliminary injunction overturned altogether.

In their brief filed July 29, the plaintiffs contend if the preliminary injunction is lifted, they will not be able to recover the lost benefits even if they ultimately win their lawsuit in the trial court. The enhanced unemployment payments which were instituted under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act of 2020 are scheduled to end Sept. 6 and plaintiffs will have no way to claw back what they should have received.

Moreover, the workers claim without the supplemental funds, they could lose their homes and medical care, along with their ability to pay for food, shelter and adequate childcare.

“And when people lose access to their basic needs, it is not a sure thing that they will find alternatives,” the plaintiffs argue in their brief. “Rather, an eviction or the loss of life-sustaining food and medication will likely lead to more housing and health issues going forward. These present harms place Workers and their families in life-threatening situations now and in the future, for which the Workers could not recover damages at the conclusion of this lawsuit.”

Conversely in its brief submitted July 20, the state is asserting that its “forced participation” in the CARES Act program is harming the public more than the individual plaintiffs. The state harmed not only by preliminary injunction which is “effectively a judicial veto” of Holcomb’s policy decision to stop the enhanced benefits but also by the administrative tasks it has had to perform to get and unemployment supplement flowing to Indiana again.

Also, the state reiterates the governor’s view that the federal money is hindering Indiana’s recovery from the COVID-19 economic downturn.

“The injunction is causing irreparable harm to the State’s economic and social recovery efforts, which impacts all Hoosiers, and that statewide harm outweighs the harm to individuals receiving CARES Act benefits,” the state argues in its brief. “No one questions that there is a significant labor shortage and that employers are struggling to fill open positions. … After studying the labor shortage problem and unemployment data, the Governor reasonably determined that CARES Act benefits, while at one time useful, were stunting Indiana’s recovery from the pandemic by incentivizing some people not to reenter the workforce.”

An amicus brief supporting the governor’s decision to stop the enhanced benefits was filed by the Indiana Legal Foundation. Formed in 1978, the nonprofit describes itself as a “legal watchdog” for Indiana businesses.

The organization argues the trial court overstepped the separation of powers doctrine by reviewing what is a policy judgment from the governor. Such policy decision should be left to the executive and legislative branches of government “who are responsive to the voters.”

In addition to dragging the judiciary into “matters left to the ‘co-equal and independent branches of government,’ the Foundation argues that allowing the preliminary injunction to stand would hinder economic development in Indiana by creating uncertainty.

“Indiana law has never allowed individual plaintiffs to override executive decisions based solely on claims of personal harm,” the Foundation asserts. “If this was the standard, any number of state and local actions could be challenged through a preliminary injunction. No one could rely on even routine actions of government for fear of litigation.”

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