State seeks to dismiss unemployment lawsuit

Case alleges widespread issues with 'robo-adjudication' software for applicants

Jul 22, 2015 at 1:00 am

Earlier this month, a cover story in this rag took a look at how the overhauled Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency has been a detriment to the well-being of working-class individuals across the state.

In a nutshell, computer software implemented in 2013 now handles unemployment claims filed by Michigan residents. If the software, which is called MiDAS, detects a discrepancy it will determine the claimant committed fraud — even if the individual was clearly eligible for benefits.

For instance, one person who was interviewed in the story, Kevin Grifka, who's also named as a plaintiff in a lawsuit alleging widespread issues with the software, said he was told he owed $13,000 for allegedly receiving benefits illegally.

But the agency actually took Grifka's earnings in one 13-week quarter and divided it equally across every week, even though he was laid off during part of that time. Unbeknownst to him, the Unemployment Insurance Agency's software construed that to mean Grifka committed fraud for not reporting income the software believed he earned.

Several other claimants, attorneys, and even judges who overhear unemployment fraud cases railed against the system in the story, which came weeks after a high-profile suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit.

Given some of the circumstances revealed in the investigation — one woman, a judge relayed, attempted to kill herself after receiving $50,000 in fraud penalties, even though she hadn't collected a dime in benefits — it would seem the state's argument in the lawsuit would be thin, at best.

That's not the case, however. The state is seeking to dismiss the lawsuit, saying it's adhering properly to statute and the plaintiffs' complaint has "no merit."

"Plaintiffs complain of the [UIA's] application and determination process," the state's motion, filed July 10, says. "Yet it is this application and determination process that reflects the compromise maintained by the legislature between eradicating fraud while providing unemployment benefits." In 2009, according to an analysis from the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency, only 0.7 percent of overpayments made by the UIA could be attributed to fraud, about $25.9 million. Likewise, the MiDAS software collected over $60 million just since last September.  

And the state claims folks like Grifka, who didn't receive notice to file a "timely" appeal, simply have no basis for filing a suit.

A hearing on the motion to dismiss filed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder's administration is set for September. Based on the overture sung in the state's pleadings, it's certain this case will drag slowly through the system. For unemployment claimants, that's likely an unfortunate sign of things that are likely to continue, as officials have remained patiently mum on issues related to the UIA's automated software.

Flint water slide plans axed, residents still have nasty H2O

Astute readers may recall a poorly planned announcement earlier this year by a company that wanted to bring massive water slides to cities like Flint, Ann Arbor, and Detroit. Perhaps expectedly, the Ann Arbor event over the Fourth of July weekend was a bust; lines, for instance, were unbearably long.

Now, the organizers of the Slide the City event have canned the Flint outing, due to a low number of registrants.

"I got an email, not even a phone call," Gerard Burnash, an executive director of the Flint Downtown Development Authority, told MLive. "I'm almost glad they canceled."

That's probably a sentiment shared by oh, say, all of Flint. The idea of a giant water slide flowing down a city that — to put it gently — has disgusting municipal water issues on its plate, hasn't sat well with many.

Recently, residents became alarmed when obscenely high levels of lead were detected in their municipal water supply, which now comes from the Flint River under a move by the city's former emergency manager. And now the federal government has taken notice. In a memo obtained earlier this month by the ACLU of Michigan's investigative reporter Curt Guyette, the Environmental Protection Agency says Flint is using methods to mask worst-case scenarios from detection.

"I don't want to scare people unnecessarily," Miguel Del Toral, regulations manager for the Ground Water and Drinking Water Branch of the EPA's Region 5, said in an interview with Guyette. "But there is absolutely a problem in Flint that needs to be addressed right away."

Guyette's exposé highlighted the dangerously high levels of lead found in the home of Flint resident LeeAnne Walters. A test performed by independent experts from Virginia Tech University found her water had a lead level of 13,200 parts per billion (ppb), over double the EPA's classification of water as hazardous waste. By comparison, Flint's test found "dangerously high levels of lead" during tests conducted by city workers, Guyette says — however, they returned much lower results: 104 ppb and 397 ppb. The discrepancy made Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards' eyes bulge out of his head.

"When I saw those numbers I was shocked," Edwards told Guyette, adding that he's never seen anything come as close to that number in his 25-year career.