Ga. Dept. of Labor wants out of settlement with lawyers for unemployed

Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler.

Combined ShapeCaption
Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler.

Class-action lawsuit relates to pandemic delays in processing unemployment claims.

The state Department of Labor has asked to cancel a proposed settlement of a class action lawsuit against the agency over a disagreement about a press release.

Lawyers for DOL late Friday asked a judge to pull out of the preliminary agreement, aimed at pushing the department to speed up its handling of jobless claims and make it easier for claimants to reach staffers with questions, about 24 hours after it had been publicly filed.

On Thursday afternoon, notice had been posted in the court docket of the preliminary agreement between the department and attorneys who had filed a 2021 class action suit related to pandemic-induced delays for Georgians seeking jobless benefits.

Especially during the first year of the pandemic, the department was bitterly criticized, its systems overwhelmed by an unprecedented number of unemployment claims and the need to embrace and manage a number of new federal programs.

The preliminary deal, which had been scheduled for final approval by a judge Sept. 1, had called on the DOL to improve its communications systems and eliminate remaining backlogs. That news was broken in a release and interviews with attorneys Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

But Labor Commissioner Mark Butler angrily responded that the department had long ago begun fixing its problems on its own. He also charged that the plaintiffs’ unilateral announcement itself violated the preliminary agreement, something attorneys for the plaintiffs denied.

Butler blasted one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, Jason Carter, for making “false and misleading” assertions about the “proposed settlement.” He threatened to back out of the deal on Friday. And a few hours later, the department rushed back to court to ask the judge to nullify the preliminary settlement, although neither side issued a public statement until Tuesday.

The DOL’s filing late Friday called the plaintiff’s press release “a direct contradiction to the terms of the proposed settlement agreement.”

The preliminary agreement calls for a joint press release in which both sides would provide information to the public, a copy of the proposed pact said.

“The point being that the parties would announce the settlement agreement in a fair and even-handed manner,” attorneys for the state DOL said in the Friday filing.

Instead, “within minutes of the conclusion of the hearing, possibly before,” the attorneys on the other side contacted the press with their own press release and its own version of the pact.

That breach has made it impossible to keep cooperating, so the department wants to withdraw from the settlement, attorneys for the state DOL said.

“Due to the indifference exhibited by plaintiffs’ counsel to the terms of the proposed settlement agreement, defendants are unable to continue along the path of final approval,” the filing said.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys filed a response Tuesday, arguing that the judge should reject the DOL motion and mandate that the agreement remain in force.

The agreement had not required them to stay mum outside the joint release, the filing said.

“Comments to the press were entirely consistent with the agreement; they were also accurate, informative, and addressed an issue of public importance,” the filing said.

It’s not clear when a judge will rule on the state’s motion.