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Judge dismisses unemployment benefits lawsuit against Idaho governor, IDOL director

Idaho

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BOISE (Idaho Capital Sun) — A judge in Ada County’s fourth district court dismissed a lawsuit last week against the governor and the Idaho Department of Labor director that alleged they violated statutory obligations by ending federal pandemic unemployment benefits in June.

The complaint, which was filed on Aug. 20 by attorneys with Idaho Legal Aid Services, detailed the stories of two Idaho plaintiffs who were struggling to find suitable employment with ongoing health conditions and the continued threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. Both individuals, named only by the initials A.E. and K.S., were relying on other forms of state assistance in lieu of unemployment benefits.

Little announced Idaho would no longer participate in federal pandemic unemployment compensation programs in May, citing the programs as one reason employers across the state were struggling to fill jobs. The benefits included an additional $300 weekly for claimants, assistance for those who do not usually qualify for unemployment — such as the self-employed — and an extension of the maximum number of weeks a claimant can file.

According to federal law, the benefits are available from the federal government until Sept. 6. As of early August, 25 states including Idaho had ended the extra benefits in June or July.

The complaint asked the court to order Gov. Brad Little to rescind his termination of the federal benefits and to continue participation, as well as pay retroactive benefits to the plaintiffs and all other eligible Idaho recipients.

According to court documents, District Judge Derrick O’Neill wrote that while the court empathized with the plaintiffs and recognized they were experiencing challenges related to the pandemic, state participation in the federal government programs was optional and continued participation was left to the governor’s discretion.

The lawsuit claimed Little and Idaho Department of Labor Director Jani Revier violated Title 72 of Idaho Code by not securing “all advantages” to Idahoans and ending the benefits early.

“Although every governor opted to participate in the programs, 100% participation across the country did not convert the option into a requirement that eliminated each governor’s discretion,” O’Neill wrote in the decision.

Marissa Morrison Hyer, spokesperson for Little’s office, said the governor thinks the court came to the correct decision.

“Congress wisely entrusted each of the 50 state governors to determine whether and for how long their respective states should participate in the CARES Act federal unemployment benefits programs,” Hyer said in a prepared statement. “Governor Little’s decision to end Idaho’s participation in the programs in June was based upon what he believed was in the best interest for Idaho and its economy. No state should be obligated to accept federal funds for unemployment programs, especially when accepting those benefits is neither necessary nor in our state’s best interest.”

O’Neill also ruled that the matter was not one for the courts to decide.

“Where the parties ask this court to interpret a statute, the court will do so. However, the court will not exchange places with the governor to decide what is Idaho’s best path forward,” he said in the dismissal document. “… If plaintiffs or other Idahoans dislike the governor’s termination decision, they may hold him accountable at the voting booth.”

Howard Belodoff, one of the Idaho Legal Aid Services lawyers who filed the case on behalf of the plaintiffs, told the Idaho Capital Sun in an email that he disagreed with the reasoning in the dismissal and said the nonprofit is weighing its options to move forward.

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