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Florida’s Cutoff of Pandemic Jobless Benefits Holds Up in Court

Aug. 30, 2021, 7:43 PM

A Florida judge declined to order enhanced federal unemployment benefits to resume for thousands of out-of-work people.

The court ruling—pending a likely appeal—lets stand the decision of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) to end early the state’s participation in the $300 weekly supplement to unemployment benefits. He halted the federally funded aid in late June, about 10 weeks prior to the Sept. 6 expiration date set by Congress.

Judge J. Layne Smith, of the state’s Second Judicial Circuit in Tallahassee, denied a request for a preliminary injunction that would have ordered the federal benefits to resume. It’s unclear how much, if any, benefits plaintiffs might stand to win on appeal, as the federal programs expire just days from now; and it was also unclear whether federal funds will be available to retroactively pay for weeks that were missed.

The judge rejected workers’ arguments that Florida law requires state officials to participate fully in all federal unemployment programs.

The governor’s decision to end the benefits early “is a political issue that the voters can approve or reject at the ballot box,” Smith wrote.

Second only to Texas, Florida was among the largest of at least 26 states that cut off early participation in some or all of the federal pandemic unemployment programs, mostly in June or July, in what was characterized as an effort to nudge people back to work.

Unemployed people sued in several states to challenge governors’ authority to end the benefits, and won court orders to reinstate the payments in a handful of them, including in Arkansas, Indiana, Maryland, and Oklahoma. An Ohio appeals court ruled Aug. 24 that Gov. Mike DeWine (R) didn’t have the authority to halt the federal benefits, and sent the case back to a lower court for further action.

As in other states, the Florida plaintiffs focused their legal arguments on language in state law that they said requires state officials to cooperate fully with the U.S. Department of Labor in securing all available benefits related to unemployment. The attorneys defending DeSantis’ authority argued the pandemic-era unemployment programs aren’t covered by those state-law requirements.

The Florida plaintiffs are represented by South Florida attorney Scott Behren and Tallahassee attorneys Gautier Kitchen and Marie Mattox.

DeSantis and the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity are represented by Benjamin J. Gibson, Daniel Nordby, and Amber Stoner Nunnally from the Tallahassee office of Shutts & Bowen LLP.

The case is Cuccaro v. DeSantis, Fla. Cir. Ct., 2021 CA 001413, 8/30/21

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Marr in Atlanta at cmarr@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com; John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com