Lawyer sues Division of Employment Security over public records access
Posted March 4, 2014
Raleigh, N.C. — Every weekday, couriers swoop into the mail room of the Division of Employment Security offices on Wade Avenue and pick up packets detailing unemployment claims that were denied after their initial review. Those packets make their way back to law firms, which send letters to the claimants offering to represent them during appeals hearings.
"They are getting information to our clients before our clients actually heard from us," said Dale Folwell, the assistant secretary in the Commerce Department who runs the division.
Folwell told law firms last week that he would end the 10-year-old practice of making the information available every day. Instead, he wants to send law firms the hearing notices in batches at least three times a month.
That prompted Monica Wilson, a former employment security hearing officer and one of the lawyers who regularly sends information to clients, to sue Folwell and the department.
Without the daily release of hearing notices, lawyers "will not be able to inform claimants that their services are available prior to the scheduled hearings, which will cause immediate and irreparable harm to their business," according to the lawsuit.
Jim White, who is representing Wilson in the case, said the cutoff would also deprive people of legal counsel in what can be a complicated legal hearing. White said that Wilson started her firm after realizing that many of the people coming before her in hearings didn't understand the process or their rights.
"These are people facing the chance of losing their benefits," White said.
Folwell said that notices going to clients notifying them that their claims have been denied will suggest they consult the North Carolina Bar Association's website to find a subject-matter expert.
As for harm to Wilson's business, Folwell said, "She's not the only lawyer that has a business to run. Lawyers across the state should have equal access to this information."
By sending the notices out in batches, Folwell said, the state will give lawyers in Wilmington, Asheville and Charlotte the same chance to advertise to clients as Wilson has.
White said that the lawsuit amounts to a public records case. The state, he said, is curbing access to a set of records based on how they are used.
"This is an effort to restrict access to public records by defining who is getting the records, by defining the users," White said.
Folwell said he is not trying to restrict access but to "level the playing field." It is also possible, he said, that some of the records Wilson has been getting are not strictly public records as defined by law.
Superior Court Judge Michael Morgan has issued a temporary restraining order that keeps the state from ending the daily release of case notices until a hearing next week.