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Judge rules state can’t halt unemployment payments without proper review

The state’s Department of Unemployment Assistance can’t halt unemployment insurance payments or demand repayment of benefits that have already been paid out without granting claimants a chance to present their case, a Worcester Superior Court judge ruled in a preliminary injunction last week.

The DUA must grant each claimant an interview within 14 days of notifying the claimant of an error or new information being discovered, and the department can’t request repayment until the claimant has had a chance to appeal.

The DUA must also “make every reasonable effort” to determine the validity of a claim and notify the claimant of the benefit amount within 30 days of it being filed, the judge ordered.

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The judge ordered the preliminary injunction in response to a lawsuit filed late last year by five workers who had their unemployment benefits suddenly cut off, several of whom were ordered to repay thousands of dollars, as the state grappled with a raft of fraudulent unemployment claims during the pandemic. All five plaintiffs have since had their benefits restored, but many other unemployed workers who are still seeking to have their payments reinstated — often after months with no income — also stand to benefit from the ruling.

More than 2.7 million unemployment claims have been filed in the state since mid-March of last year, and roughly 600,000 people still have continuing unemployment claims in the state.

The order is not compelling the state to comply with new regulations but simply commanding DUA to follow its own rules, said Leigh Woodruff, litigation director at Community Legal Aid in Worcester, which is representing the plaintiffs.

“They [DUA] kind of just did this with impunity, and obviously that harms a lot of people,” she said. “You’re seeing it more and more now because so many people are unemployed due to the pandemic.”

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The plaintiffs in the case include a nurse, the single mother of a disabled 8-year-old girl, who had received more than $13,000 in unemployment insurance between May and August when she received a questionnaire from DUA asking about her separation from her employer, according to the complaint. Her payments were abruptly stopped, with no notice or opportunity for an interview. As a result, the woman was unable to pay her rent or car loan or afford disability-assistive devices for her daughter. She even suffered from a stress-induced outbreak of shingles.

Another plaintiff, who worked in payroll for a roofing company, was ordered to repay more than $6,000 in benefits she had already received, also with no notice or chance to present evidence.

In the past, there has been a cultural stigma against people collecting unemployment, Woodruff noted. But as the pandemic threw hundreds of thousands of people out of work in Massachusetts, the perception of unemployed workers being “on the dole” has faded — and given legal aid attorneys more compelling stories to tell as they seek to hold DUA accountable.

Community Legal Aid will work with the state to implement the injunction, Woodruff said.

The Department of Unemployment Assistance said it was reviewing the ruling and “will respond to the court directly.”

“This injunction will stop devastating DUA practices,” Woodruff said. “The court’s order makes clear: It is unlawful for DUA to suddenly say, ‘Oops, we made a mistake when we approved your claim.’ . . . Under this order, DUA can no longer put claims on hold and leave families in limbo without income or any way to appeal — for months on end.”

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Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.