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Maine Settles Suit Over COVID-19 Jobless Benefits Seized From Prisoners

by Jayson Hawkins

Like many prison systems across America, Maine’s Department of Corrections (DOC) has a work-release program that allows prisoners to hold jobs in local communities while serving their sentence. But when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020, the programs were suspended as part of the effort to keep the virus from rampaging through the prison population.

Affected prisoners were essentially unemployed due to COVID-19 restrictions, so when state and federal relief bills were passed to aid those put out of work by the pandemic, these prisoners dutifully filed for and received unemployment benefits. For several months, the checks came in. After DOC made deductions for room and board, restitution, child support and the like, what remained was passed on to the prisoners. In April 2020, the office of state Attorney General Aaron Frey (D) even sent a legal opinion to state Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman concluding that prisoners were eligible to receive the benefits because they met all the criteria outlined in relevant statutes.

By mid-May 2020, however, Gov. Janet Mills (D) had ordered DOC Commissioner Randall Liberty to make a list of prisoners who might be eligible for benefits and to seize any money already distributed to them. She also ordered Fortman to stop any further distribution. Over the subsequent months, $163,228.40 was seized from 54 state prisoners.

Marc Sparks, a prisoner at Bolduc Correctional Facility, worked at Applebee’s prior to the COVID-19 lockdown. After filing for relief money that was then seized, he sued in federal court for the District of Maine, alleging that he and other similarly situated prisoners had been denied their Fourteenth Amendment due-process rights.

At first, Defendants argued that the Court should decline the case, since it involved the sort of intrastate matters that the U.S. Supreme Court counseled federal courts to avoid in Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315 (1943). But federal Judge Lance E. Walker said he was “not convinced that the risk of intruding on the state system outweighs the potential detriment to the Plaintiff’s Due Process rights under the Constitution.”

But while declining to make a Burford abstention, Walker found that “Maine’s interest in preserving scarce financial resources during a global pandemic is significant,” so the “burden” of continuing Plaintiffs’ payments while they pursue their due process rights “is more than is constitutionally required.” He then dismissed the case on March 26, 2021, a decision overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit almost a year later on March 24, 2022. See: Sparks v. Mills, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 8764 (1st Cir.).

That got the parties to the settlement table, where they finalized an agreement that the Court approved on August 24, 2022. The Settlement “provides important monetary and non-monetary relief to the Settlement Class,” the Court noted, with “Defendants acknowledg[ing] that people incarcerated by [DOC] have a property interest in the funds in their prison accounts, regardless of the source.” In addition, “Defendants agree to waive and to never seek repayment from the Settlement Class Members of any of the unemployment funds … including the alleged overpayments.”

 Defendants also agreed to pay $367,228.40 to the class, which (1) repays the amounts seized, less deductions, and (2) pays $4,000 total in Service Awards to the named plaintiffs as class representatives, as well as (3) paying $200,000 for fees and expenses of class counsel, including the cost of settlement administration. “On average, each Settlement Class Member will receive about $3,080,” the Court noted.

David Webbert, an attorney for the prisoners, said the settlement represented a big victory. “Everyone — including an incarcerated worker — is entitled to equal protection and fair treatment under the law,” he said.

Additional class counsel was provided by other attorneys from Johnson, Webbert & Garvan LLP in Augusta, Carol Garvan and Shelby Leighton, as well as Christopher K. MacLean of Camden Law in Camden. See: Sparks v. Mills, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 151730 (D. Me.). 

Additional sources: The Center Square, Maine Beacon

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