New Mexico Legal Aid Secures Victory in Lawsuit Against NM Department of Workforce Solutions for Unemployment Benefit Withholding
In a significant legal victory, New Mexico Legal Aid proudly announces the successful outcome of a lawsuit against the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions (NMDWS) on behalf of 18 plaintiffs. Led by Alicia Clark from the Albuquerque Office and Joel Jasperse from the Gallup Office, the legal action challenged the unlawful withholding of unemployment benefits. This lawsuit, initiated on June 9, 2022, culminated in a Summary Judgment ruling in favor of the plaintiffs on July 14, 2023, by First Judicial District Judge Bryan Biedscheid.
The central issue of the lawsuit pertained to the application of a section within the Unemployment Law, specifically NMSA 51-1-38(A). This section empowers NMDWS to impose a fraud disqualification penalty for up to one year following a fraud determination, with a maximum of 52 penalty weeks.
Alicia Clark, one of the attorneys leading the case, highlighted, “Workforce Solutions had a right to deny them benefits for one year from the date of the fraud determination. But once you get past that one-year mark from the date of the fraud determination, they no longer can legally deny people their unemployment benefits.”
NMDWS extended the disqualification and penalty weeks beyond one year, using the date when the worker next became eligible for benefits. The Court’s Summary Judgment deemed this practice illegal and ordered its cessation.
Many of the 18 plaintiffs were unaware of the reasons behind the withholding of their unemployment benefits until the media reported on a similar lawsuit filed on behalf of 7 plaintiffs in 2020. This led them to reach out to New Mexico Legal Aid for assistance, resulting in the plaintiffs from the earlier lawsuit being awarded $70,000 in benefits.
“Workforce Solutions was acting illegally,” Clark said. “They were bound by the law that the legislature enacted. They do not have the authority to deny people benefits due to fraud more than one year after their fraud determination. And they continued to do it even after we won the first lawsuit with seven plaintiffs.”
Subsequent to the filing of the current lawsuit, Workforce granted some of the 18 plaintiffs their unlawfully withheld benefits. The legal action facilitated the awarding of over $155,000 in benefits to the plaintiffs, with some individuals still awaiting the disbursement of over $52,000 in further benefits, as stipulated by the Summary Judgment. Additionally, two clients, who approached New Mexico Legal Aid after the lawsuit was initiated, were awarded $13,000.
This legal triumph underscores New Mexico Legal Aid’s resolute commitment to safeguarding the rights of individuals facing inequitable circumstances. The organization remains steadfast in its pursuit of justice, ensuring that accessible legal recourse remains available to all, as emphasized by Alicia Clark,
“The state legislature created this program so temporarily displaced workers in New Mexico could survive these short periods of unemployment, and these people were denied benefits when it was absolutely necessary,” she said. “This is the difference between having a roof over your head and not.” The successful outcome of this lawsuit echoes the organization’s dedication to its mission and reflects the impact of legal advocacy in upholding the rights of those in need.