If you have lost your job through no fault of your own, especially in the current difficult economy, unemployment benefits can be the difference between eviction or foreclosure and keeping your owned or rented home. In the U.S., unemployment benefits are significantly less generous than in most of our industrialized allied countries and trading partners; we Americans generally receive lower benefits and for a shorter period than do most Europeans, for example. Yet our modest, limited benefits can be crucial to surviving in a terrible economy.
Unemployment hearings in Maryland occur in three stages –
– The telephone or “claims specialist” stage
– The Lower Appeals or “Hearing Examiner” stage, and
– The Board of Appeals in some cases.
Generally, the claims specialist conducts a mere telephone interview with the worker or “claimant” and with the employer, and renders a preliminary decision as to eligibility. If either party disagrees with the decision, either may file for an appeal of the decision to a hearing examiner for a “de novo” (all new, “do-over”) hearing before the hearing examiner in an unemployment office location or other State office complex. That Lower Appeals hearing is recorded live, usually conducted in a small room and is generally limited to 45 minutes in length.
If the Lower Appeals decision reverses the telephone hearing, a dissatisfied party may appeal to the UI Board of Appeals; in most other cases, the appeals go to the Circuit Court for a judicial appeal that is based on the Lower Appeals record, i.e. NOT a “do-over from the top” but a review to determine legal errors and very gross factual errors only. Accordingly, it’s important to take the Lower Appeals hearing seriously; it’s worth it in most cases to hire an attorney or at least to consult with one.
The two main issues in unemployment cases are misconduct (of varying degrees) and voluntary quit for cause.
In a misconduct case, the employer has the burden of proof of showing conduct by the worker that either violates a fairly communicated workplace rule or otherwise manifested gross disregard for the interests of the employer. Misconduct grades run from (simple/petty) misconduct which involves a penalty of benefit “weeks”, to gross misconduct and aggravated misconduct which bar all access to UI benefits until the worker is rehired and earns through wages/salary an amount of compensation equal to a large factor of the weekly benefit pay-out.
Voluntary quit for a serious justified cause related to the job itself allows the worker to keep unemployment benefits, whereas voluntary quit for the lesser “valid circumstances” related to the job or to the worker’s personal circumstances may result in a penalty of benefit weeks. Voluntary quit for insufficient cause bars benefits entirely until a worker is rehired and earns back into the system. Sometimes, it’s a close call whether a worker quit or was terminated.
Maryland has just increased the penalties for workers who get fired for misconduct; effective March 1, 2011 the penalty will be the loss of 10-15 weeks (up from 5-10 weeks) of benefits for a misconduct firing, and a requirement to earn 25 benefit weeks (up from 20 weeks) worth of wages for a gross misconduct firing before being re-admitted to eligibility. It’s more important now than ever to consider hiring legal counsel in Maryland in a misconduct claim due to the even higher stakes for a loss.
Most Maryland attorneys do not do unemployment hearings; there’s a reason why you see advertisements for car accident lawyers and medical malpractice lawyers and DWI/DUI lawyers, but almost none for unemployment insurance lawyers. One might think that in this economy, the demand for unemployment attorneys would be very high – and demand is so high that at least one Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service in Maryland has been soliciting lawyers to take more of these cases. Legal fees in unemployment cases are capped by state regulation and a somewhat burdensome review of the bills by the Unemployment Insurance office. Accordingly, most attorneys shy away from these cases for those reasons. Fortunately, some lawyers do practice in this area in Maryland.