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Lawyers take aim at Florida’s broken unemployment system with two class action lawsuits

One of the cases is asking a judge to order the Department of Economic Opportunity to immediately pay people’s claims.

TALLAHASSEE — The department overseeing Florida’s broken unemployment system — and the company that created it — are now being sued for its disastrous handling of coronavirus-related unemployment claims.

In a lawsuit filed in Leon County Circuit Court last week, Tallahassee attorneys Marie Mattox and Gautier Kitchen are asking a judge to order the Department of Economic Opportunity to immediately pay unemployment benefits to their clients. And they’re requesting the case be extended to the hundreds of thousands of other Floridians who have been waiting more than a month for help.

A judge is expected to weigh in on the case during a hearing next week, but Maddox and Kitchen said a lawyer for the Department of Economic Opportunity has been trying to delay by arguing the situation is not an emergency.

“They could not understand why this was an emergency,” Maddox said. “We were like, ‘Are you freaking kidding me?’”

“This is the urgency of now. People need food now. They need mortgage money now,” Kitchen added.

Related: Floridians deemed ‘ineligible’ for unemployment should reapply, state says

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office didn’t respond to requests for comment. A Department of Economic Opportunity spokeswoman said the department doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

So far, Maddox and Kitchen have named eight plaintiffs in the cases, but Maddox says they have a stack of printed emails from 4,000 to 5,000 people measuring “a foot high” that they plan on entering into the record this week.

They estimate they could have between 100,000 to 200,000 plaintiffs, and they’re considering partnering with other law firms interested in the case.

More than 2 million unemployment applications have been filed since March 15, but only 416,683 people had received payments by Thursday. For the first month of the COVID-19 pandemic, Florida was the slowest state in the nation at processing unemployment claims.

Many people who have had their claims processed have found the state has ruled them ineligible for unstated reasons, and the state this week said that all of the more than 266,000 people who have been ruled ineligible need to reapply.

Related: Rick Scott says Americans would rather collect unemployment than go to work

Of the two lawsuits, one was also filed against DeSantis. But the attorneys are removing him as a defendant.

“We certainly understand and are sympathetic that Gov. DeSantis inherited this system that was designed to fail,” Kitchen said.

In fact, they said they plan to use DeSantis’ comments about the system in the second lawsuit filed last week against Deloitte Consulting, the company the Department of Economic Opportunity contracted with in 2010 to design and build the state’s online unemployment system, known as CONNECT.

That lawsuit was also filed in Leon County Circuit Court, and Maddox and Kitchen are also requesting class-action status.

Deloitte was paid more than $40 million to overhaul the system, but had trouble with the project from the get-go. (Total costs for the oversight and implementation of the project reached more than $77 million.)

State officials threatened to fire the company before the site went live. When it did go live, in 2013, recipients experienced the same sort of errors and website crashes Floridians are experiencing now.

Related: Ron DeSantis was warned about Florida’s broken unemployment website last year, audit shows

Since mid-March, CONNECT has been crippled by the number of unemployment claims, causing the state to revert to paper forms. More than 256,000 paper applications have been filed.

DeSantis has called the website a “jalopy” and said last week that it was designed to fail.

“This thing was a clunker, there’s no doubt about it," he said. “It was designed, with all these different things, to basically fail, I think.”

Jonathan Gandal, managing director of Deloitte Services, said the lawsuit has “no merit.”

“When the state accepted the system and we completed our work in 2015, CONNECT was vastly outperforming the systems it replaced and processing claims more efficiently and accurately than ever before," Gandal wrote in an email. "We have not been involved in the system since then. Clearly, any lawsuit involving us would have no merit.”

While CONNECT, like the unemployment systems in many states, has struggled with the historic numbers of unemployment claims, neither former Gov. Rick Scott, who is now in the U.S. Senate and is not named in either lawsuit, nor DeSantis fixed the system’s longstanding issues.

State auditors in 2015, 2016 and 2019 all flagged the same glitches and website problems that dated to 2013.

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