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Learning-disabled woman can’t appeal jobless benefit fraud charges

Megan Coronado, a learning-disabled Waukesha resident, suffered a loss at the District 2 Court of Appeals over whether she had falsely claimed jobless benefits. (File photo by Kevin Harnack)

Megan Coronado, a learning disabled Waukesha resident, suffered a loss at the District 2 Court of Appeals over whether she could challenge administrative law decisions finding she had falsely claimed jobless benefits. (File photo by Kevin Harnack)

A state appeals court has ruled that a Waukesha woman with a learning disability cannot appeal state officials’ decision finding that she had falsely claimed jobless benefits.

Last week’s decision stems from the case of Megan Coronado, who applied for unemployment in 2011 after she had lost three jobs. Until September 2013 she had continued to file weekly claims for jobless benefits.

Coronado has a learning disability that makes it difficult for her to read and understand written information.

Starting in August 2013, the state Department of Workforce Development, which oversees the state’s jobless benefits program, began to question Coronado’s eligibility for jobless benefits. DWD mailed her five decisions in September 2013 indicating that she had failed to accurately report previous wages and thus had been overpaid benefits. In total, the department found that she owed about $14,000.

Coronado contends that, far from trying to defraud the state, she had merely made mistakes when filing her weekly claims. Rather than the intentions behind the false claims, though, her case has centered on questions over whether she should have been allowed to file an appeal in the first place.

Coronado did not attempt to appeal the decisions until May 2014, when she learned that the DWD had intercepted her 2013 tax refund to recover what it claimed she owed it in jobless benefits. By then, the deadline for filing an appeal had passed.

Coronado attempted to appeal to an administrative law judge, contending that state statute let her cite her learning disability as a circumstance beyond her control and that she should be allowed to file a late appeal.

When that judge let the decisions stand, Coronado next appealed to the Labor and Industry Review Commission, an independent body that reviews administrative law decisions.

But the LIRC also declined to let her appeal the initial decisions. Coronado next took her case to the Waukesha County Circuit Court, which rejected her claim last year.

Her latest stop has been the District 2 Court of Appeals. The court’s three-judge panel on June 1 affirmed the LIRC’s previous decision barring Coronado from appealing the previous finding that she had claimed benefits that were owed to her. Among other things, the judges found that LIRC’s decision was reasonable given the evidence in the record.

The LIRC ruled that Coronado was not prevented by her disability from getting help to understand the initial decisions concerning benefits fraud. In other words, it was not circumstances beyond her control that caused her to miss the appeals deadline. That finding, according to the appeals court’s decision on June 1, was supported by substantial evidence in the record and was thus a reasonable conclusion on LIRC’s part.

Coronado’s attorney, Victor Forberger, said that the outcome was disappointing.

“The appeals court at least acknowledges she had a disability,” he said. “In the previous stages of the process that wasn’t the case.”

At the same time, however, Forberger said the decision was perplexing.

“It acknowledges her disability but holds her responsible for not reading the information that was given to her,” he said. “The court is holding her responsible for something that her disability prevents her from accomplishing. It’s like trying to make a blind person see.”

Forberger said Coronado has gotten buried under the money she owes the DWD and other debts and has since filed for bankruptcy.

Her string of hardships might not be over.

Forberger said he is worried that the state Department of Justice will go after her with criminal charges for benefits fraud, a violation otherwise known as concealment. The department announced in December that it would be putting more time and resources into prosecuting cases of this type.

“That might be coming down the pipeline for her,” said Forberger.

 

About Erika Strebel, erika.strebel@wislawjournal.com

Erika Strebel is the law beat reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal and a law school student at UW-Madison. She can be reached at 414-225-1825.

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