Letter to Governor Walker

In light of the Senate passage of AB819 on Tuesday of this week, I am sending a letter to Governor Walker urging him to line-item veto four provisions in the bill.

Dear Governor Walker:

I represent in my legal practice numerous employees and employers in unemployment law matters, and I urge you to line-item veto various provisions in AB819.

The provisions at issue consist of proposals by the Department of Workforce Development (“DWD” or “Department”) that create marked, unpredictable, and undesirable changes in unemployment law for the employees and employers of Wisconsin.

Changes to the definition of unemployment concealment

Sections 18 and 19 of the bill essentially make claimants strictly liable for their claim-filing mistakes. The proposed changes state that concealment is intentional but then disclaim that the Department does not have to prove that a claimant has such an intent. Furthermore, the proposed changes specify ways for a claimant to show no concealment that are so limited or specific that they essentially mean that concealment will be presumed.

This strict liability standard creates due process issues in unemployment law as well as significant problems for any criminal sanctions against claimants for actual concealment. The implications in criminal cases are especially problematic. While the intent requirement for concealment is being removed, criminal prosecutions for unemployment concealment still need mens rea to be shown. Because the mens rea is being administratively presumed rather then proven, claimants who commit actual concealment could likely avoid criminal prosecution for their fraudulent acts in light of this missing mens rea.

Creating a slush fund for Department expenditures

Sections 83-87 of the bill creates a fund for perpetually funding the Department’s program integrity efforts. This funding mechanism, however, lacks any criteria regarding this spending or legislative oversight and so allows for Department hiring and expenditures that are arbitrary. Accordingly, this program is the antithesis of small government .

Re-doing the prohibition on receiving unemployment benefits when receiving Social Security Disability Income (“SSDI”) benefits

Sections 20-25 of the bill re-write the prohibition on receiving unemployment benefits when already receiving SSDI benefits. An earlier and similar prohibition was enacted as part of 2013 Wis. Act 36. The Labor and Industry Review Commission (“LIRC” or “Commission”) initially held that the original prohibition only applied for the week when the claimant received his or her SSDI benefit check. Four circuit courts, however, reversed the Commission’s reasoning. As a result, there is now no legal need for re-writing this prohibition.

Furthermore, this new prohibition will, pursuant to section 103 of the bill, be retroactive to January 2014, the same time when the original prohibition became effective. Because of this retroactive application, this new prohibition creates a constitutional problem that will lead to a new round of litigation for the three to five claimants who received a few hundred dollars of unemployment benefits before the Commission decisions regarding the first prohibition were over-turned. The Department will end up spending thousands of dollars in litigation expenses and staff hours over a few hundred dollars in unemployment benefits. Since the first prohibition is now being enforced, there is simply no legal or economic need for this second retroactive prohibition.

Changing the procedures for obtaining review of a LIRC decision in circuit court

Sections 54 and 55 of the bill substantially alter the process, venue, and parties involved in appeals of Commission decisions. Among these proposed changes, the Department will have the right to file unemployment appeals in any county it chooses regardless of where employees or employers reside. Furthermore, because these changes presume that any party in an unemployment case risks default judgment when not answering a complaint, employers will need to file answers in claimant appeals of Commission decisions. Since Wisconsin requires any company to have an attorney representing it in court, employers will have to spend several hundred dollars for an attorney to file an answer on their behalf. Right now, employers can rely on the Commission to defend these cases and have no need for separate representation and the filing of answers.

The Commission tried to discuss these changes with the Department and the Advisory Council but was ignored. Without a voice in the process, the Commission formally opposed these changes at public hearings for this bill.

There are notable improvements in unemployment law in this bill. For instance, the provisions for protecting reimbursable employers from identity theft in section 73 of the bill are useful and well-done.

But, the four provisions mentioned here create confusion and legal complications about what unemployment law means and how to apply it. Please line-item veto these provisions.

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