The New Hampshire Department of Employment Security has reversed its claim that a Rye man must pay back thousands of dollars in unemployment benefits he received in 2020.
Claude Pottier, 67, was furloughed from his job at Private Jet Services in March 2020 and applied for unemployment insurance benefits. He began receiving benefits later that month and did so until taking a job with UPS in October 2020, where he contracted COVID-19, according to a lawsuit filed in March.
The lawsuit claimed Pottier received contradictory information from NHES and that he was both “eligible” and “ineligible” for certain unemployment benefits during the period he had been collecting.
On January 19, 2021, he received an “Overpayment Demand Letter” claiming he had received overpayments totaling $4,859.
The case was dismissed by the superior court on June 7 and was turned over to a DES appeal tribunal that reversed the state’s original position, concluding Pottier was not responsible for overpayments and that DES, in fact, owed him $1100.
“Getting here required us to file a lawsuit and to challenge DES in its own administrative process,” said Michael Lewis, Pottier’s attorney. “That effort took months and months.”
Pottier was one of more than 172,000 Granite Staters who filed for unemployment benefits from March through May of 2020 when the state’s unemployment rate rose to 16 percent.
Over the past year New Hampshire has paid nearly $2 billion, which is more than was paid during the entire prior decade combined.
DES has acknowledged overpayments to about 20,000 individuals amounting to millions of dollars—8000 of which did nothing wrong. But others, the state says, provided inaccurate, misleading information and are required to pay back the money received.
“Before and during these months and months, NH held onto money it owed Claude and which he could’ve used to survive,” Lewis said. “New Hampshire’s unemployed are lucky to have someone like him. Through his lawsuit, they realized they were not alone in their experience of having a large state bureaucracy make false claims about them at their most vulnerable moments as part of an effort to take what little money they have away during a pandemic-driven economic crisis.”
For many in the state, the issue Pottier faced remains.
Stephanie Mckay administers a Facebook group called N.H. Unemployment during Covid-19 that has been helping people network and navigate the state’s unemployment system. She says the issue of overpayments, including new ones, remain, and that appeals filed in October are being scheduled for end of August.
“From what I can tell, the majority of claimants not represented by counsel are being denied at appeal as well,” McKay said. “I actually sat in on a hearing where the claimant was railroaded by the tribunal chair, asked questions irrelevant to his case and she tried to confuse him at every turn. It was hard to listen to and she ultimately decided to deny him based on the fact that ‘she was not convinced he had lost income due to covid’ even though his tax returns and receipts proved he did.”
The other big issue right now, McKay said, is the decision to end federal programs.
“We are currently searching for an attorney who will follow Indiana, Maryland and Texas in fighting this at the state level.”
Lewis maintains that Pottier’s case serves to show others the state has been “getting a pass on a policy that amounts to a regressive income tax directed at people recovering from unemployment.
DES Deputy Commissioner Richard Lavers said he was not allowed to comment on Pottier’s case because unemployment issues are considered confidential by state and federal law.
But he did commend the effectiveness of the appeals unit at DES that handled Pottier’s case and the state’s overall response to the pandemic.
Appeals with DES have increased from 200 claims per month prior to the pandemic, to 800 appeals today.
The appeals process “gives people the opportunity to correct their prior mistakes or produce new evidence to help the department make the correct decision,” Lavers said.
“Fortunately, the Superior Court agreed with the department when it recently dismissed Mr. Pottier’s related lawsuit.”
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