The Fight Over Counsel For The Unemployed
For ten years, North Carolina attorneys have had access to a daily list of unemployed workers who are scheduled for appeal hearings. Most of these people had their unemployment claims denied and are appealing the decision.
But last week, the Division of Employment Security said it would no longer provide a daily list of these hearings. A Durham attorney is fighting back and has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Commerce and its employment division.
Dale Folwell is the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for the Division of Employment Security. And he takes the security part of his job seriously.
“This is the door, and they push that bell. Hear it in there?” said Folwell. "See, it says no admittance... All employees without badges are required to go to the front desk."
This is the back door attorneys or their couriers enter when they’re picking up sometimes hundreds of benefit appeals hearing notices a day.
Folwell says he received a complaint that one attorney in particular was sending out legal services solicitation letters faster than some clients or employers were even notified of their hearings. Folwell told reporters yesterday he suspected a security breach.
"And I could never put a bow on it when I got this complaint from this employer, and said why am I getting this letter from this attorney before I heard from you on the same letter," Folwell said. "Then I started putting two and two together and found out it all came down to the mailroom."
WUNC's Leoneda Inge asked Folwell if he thought Attorney Monica Wilson contributed to this breach.
"I am not accusing her of anything. I’m taking her words that are in her complaint that she set this policy up,” said Folwell.
Attorney Monica Wilson says she and other attorneys have been picking up daily notices of benefits appeal hearings for more than ten years.
“I actually proposed to him that, if you don’t want us going back to the mailroom to pick them up every day or having our couriers do that, why not have us go around to the security desk. And he just said, not going to happen," said Wilson.
Wilson calls Folwell’s decision to halt the delivery of daily hearing notices capricious.
“And in discussions with the other attorneys, common themes sort of started to emerge which was, we really believe that this is targeted at people who represent claimants so that claimants don’t have attorneys and ultimately the state pays less in unemployment benefits," said Wilson.
Wilson says she started a law practice solely to serve claimants in unemployment appeal hearings. In 2002, she was an appeal referee for the state and she says there was a gross inequity in those hearings. Employers had institutional experience and attorneys and Wilson says claimants had no job, no money and no attorney.
In 2004, Wilson says she filed a Freedom of Information Act request and was granted access to the daily hearing notices for a processing fee of $300 a month.
Change in process
Folwell said he will not stop distribution of the hearing notices altogether. But instead of delivering them on a daily basis, he plans to distribute them at least three times a month. And instead of charging attorneys $300 monthly for the service, it is now $600 a month.
Wilson says that’s why she decided to file a lawsuit.
“The likelihood of actually being able to receive those records and then reach out to any clients before their actual hearing day is greatly diminished," said Wilson. "And effectively it puts me and all of the other attorneys who started practicing in this area after myself, out of business.”
Folwell said, "The whole purpose of this was not to raise a debate about an open records law and Freedom of Information Act, it wasn’t about that all. It was about not costing this agency money to send out this information and number two, for people across North Carolina to all be treated equally, if they are in the business of practicing law.”
For now, a temporary restraining order is in place to keep things as they were. A hearing is set for next week in Wake County Superior Court.