NY Officials, Law Firm Sued Over Judge’s Removal

     (CN) – The former chief judge of unemployment appeals in New York claims in court that he was ousted for trying to stop a law firm from clogging the system with time-consuming, costly audits for a decades-old compliance order.
     William Rold, former chief administrative law judge of New York’s Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board (UIAB), claims state officials were complicit in allowing Raff & Becker to divert federal and state money from current unemployment claims hearings “to churn due process litigation about such hearings for their own profit.”
     The United States, through Rold, filed a false claims and civil rights lawsuit last December in Brooklyn against the law firm, partners David Raff and Robert Becker, former New York Department of Labor Commissioner M. Patricia Smith and UIAB Chair Leonard Polletta. The government also sued Gov. Andrew Cuomo for allegedly failing “to grant Rold relief against retaliation.”
     According to the 59-page federal lawsuit unsealed this week, Raff & Becker filed two class actions decades earlier against board members and state officials over the due-process rights of claimants in unemployment hearings. When the parties settled those cases in the 1980s, the rights of claimants expanded under several “structural injunctions,” including calling witnesses, cross-examination, development of an adequate record and decisions based on evidence.
     The law firm monitored compliance with the injunctions for nearly 30 years, auditing samplings of decisions and writing letters that required a response from an administrative law judge. Those responses were detailed and time-consuming, Rold says, and an efficient judge could decide three current disputed claims in the time it took to respond to one letter.
     Rold says Raff & Becker wrote more than 100 letters per year, billing $3,000 to $4,000 per letter. This clogged up a system already backlogged with more than 17,000 cases, he says.
     “The Raff & Becker letters mostly diverted judges’ time and generated attorneys’ fees,” the complaint states. “They did not serve as a useful tool for monitoring compliance.”
     During his tenure, Rold says the firm and its partners “typically requested $70,000 to $90,000 per month in ongoing fees” and received $5.3 million in attorneys’ fees from 1995 to 2003, “primarily for their monitoring services.”
     As a result, Rold says he objected to an “elaborate and costly” amelioration plan that called for even more auditing and oversight. Proposed by the law firm in 2009, the plan allegedly ramped up audits to more than 5,800 per year.
     “The resources diverted to do the proposed audits could instead have reduced the backlog by one-third, if the judges were resolving new cases instead of reconsidering old ones,” the lawsuit states.
     Rold says Polletta and Smith were unhappy with his opposition to the plan and subjected him to an increasingly hostile work environment in an effort to force him out.
     Polletta allegedly berated Rold at board meetings; insisted on reviewing all his memos; barred him from voicing his opinions on the budget, staffing, litigation strategy or due process; falsely told board members that Rold was coercing support from his subordinates; asked Rold’s subordinates to report him; and deliberately deprived him of the personnel needed to perform his job.
     Rold claims the hostile environment was best exemplified by what happened to him in the wake of his investigation of Senior Administrative Law Judge Thomas Mammen, who had been accused of forging subordinates’ signatures on official documents.
     Rold found the allegations to be true in at least 11 instances and recommended that Mammen be fired, according to the lawsuit. But Rold says Smith tried to cover up the incident, saying she wanted to handle it quietly for fear it could “implode” on the department.
     Rold nonetheless submitted a written report to the New York Inspector General, which was intercepted by agents at the state Department of Labor, he claims. He says the agency’s general counsel rebuked him for writing the inspector general and told him to turn over all his files. He made copies first, and then proceeded to hand-deliver his report to the inspector general’s office, according to the complaint.
     The Office of the Inspector General issued a public report in August 2009, finding that Mammen had, in fact, altered official documents. But instead of being fired, Mammen was reassigned to work from home, according to Rold, where he “received full pay without working” for 20 months. He was later charged with Penal Law violations and was allowed to resign with his pension in November 2009. About a year later, the Third Department Appellate Division publicly censured him.
     Smith allegedly hired Whiteman, Osterman & Hanna of Albany to contain the potential scandal and to distance herself and Polletta from it.
     Polletta removed Rold from office shortly thereafter, allegedly in retaliation for opposing the amelioration plan and helping to blow the whistle on Mammen.
     Rold has since filed a grievance, which was denied, and claims he is waiting for Cuomo to act on his appeal. He says he was “humiliated and embarrassed” by his removal from office, and “continues to suffer stress.”
     The amelioration plan was adopted with minor changes in April 2010, according to the lawsuit, and has contributed to New York’s having “the worst timeliness rate for hearings in the nation.”
     Raff and Becker could not be reached for comment, and Gov. Cuomo’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
     The United States, via Rold, is suing for false claims, retaliation, unjust enrichment, due process violations, conspiracy to interfere with civil rights, violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act, breach of contract, and state and federal constitutional violations.
     Plaintiffs are represented by Jane Becker in Puerto Rico and Steven Rosen in New York.

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