The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty alleges in a lawsuit the state Department of Workforce Solutions has violated a public records law by failing to hand over requested documents.
The law center, a nonprofit legal organization that advocates on behalf of low-income New Mexicans, says in its petition, filed Monday in state District Court, it requested documents from the labor agency twice in the past year hoping to gain a better understanding of how well the agency was handling the massive influx of unemployment claims tied to the coronavirus pandemic.
An attorney for the center said Tuesday the nonprofit filed the records requests after trying unsuccessfully to engage Department of Workforce Solutions officials in discussions about applicants’ struggles to gain access to unemployment benefits.
“We have been trying to initiate conversation since last July to try to get their attention,” attorney Felipe Guevara said. But, he said, the center’s overtures, including an email to former labor Secretary Bill McCamley, went unanswered.
McCamley stepped down last week.
The center asked the agency in November for its budget request for fiscal year 2022.
“We wanted records that would give us a better understanding of whether [the department] was getting enough money to manage all these programs, particularly unemployment,” Guevara said.
Sherry Crespin, a records custodian for the Department of Workforce Solutions, acknowledged the Nov. 10 records request the same day, according to the lawsuit. She told the center she would need until Nov. 25 to respond.
But that date came and went, the lawsuit says. The center sent a follow-up email Dec. 7, but the agency “never responded to this email and never produced the requested records.”
The center sent Crespin a Jan. 16 request for templates of unemployment insurance application forms, policy manuals used by the department to determine eligibility for or termination of unemployment benefits, and examples of letters sent to applicants about their rights and responsibilities regarding unemployment.
“We wanted to get a better understanding of how [the department] was managing unemployment,” Guevara said, particularly in light of complaints from the public about the department’s overpayment of benefits at one point, and subsequent attempts to recoups those funds.
Crespin again acknowledged the records request and gave a February date for an expected response, but the department “never responded ... and never produced the requested documents,” the lawsuit says.
Crespin — who also is named as a defendant in the complaint — did not respond to an email or call seeking comment Tuesday.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Workforce Solutions declined to comment, writing in an email Tuesday the agency does not comment on ongoing litigation.
Guevara said the lawsuit is a last resort for the center.
“We haven’t filed one of these lawsuits in more than a decade,” he said. “It’s really not normal for us ... and we are all very confused as to why we are having to do this.”
The center is asking the District Court to order the department to produce the records and pay the center damages and legal fees.