Is Branstad Administration Illegally Pressuring Judges?

teresa wahlert

Teresa Wahlert, Iowa Workforce Development Director

Senate.Iowa.gov

State Senator Bill Dotzler, co-chair of the Joint Economic Development Subcommittee, presented evidence at a Statehouse news conference focusing on the actions of Iowa Workforce Development Director Teresa Wahlert.

Dotzler said the evidence shows that Wahlert is improperly pressuring Administrative Law Judges to rule in favor of employers and against employees in unemployment cases.

In Iowa Workforce Development, there are federally funded administrative law judges who rule on disputes between employers and employees regarding unemployment claims. Under normal conditions, these judges are overseen by a chief Administrative Law Judge.

“Branstad political appointee Teresa Wahlert has put herself directly in charge of Administrative Law Judges and is improperly—and I believe illegally—pressuring these judges to rule in favor of employers and against Iowa workers.”

Dotzler released a letter he has sent to U.S. Department of Labor that calls on federal investigators to determine if Wahlert is violating federal laws requiring the fair and impartial administration of unemployment insurance benefits.

In Dotzler’s letter, he listed a number of specific concerns about Director Wahlert’s actions.  They include:

  • Director Wahlert created a hostile work environment for Administrative Law Judges who did not follow her pro-employer, anti-employee philosophy.
  • Director Wahlert, a political appointee, became the direct supervisor of the Administrative Law Judges after eliminating the Chief Administrative Law Judge’s position.
  • Director Wahlert required them [the administrative law judges] to develop “tip sheets” to help employers win cases, actions which would interfere with their ability to impartially judge cases. Wahlert did not require anyone to create similar “tip sheets” to help employees in similar cases.

“Under federal law, unemployment compensation appeal hearings must be fair and impartial, both in fact and appearance.  Political interference or undue political influence, even in appearance, can potentially destabilize the appeals process, undermine the credibility of a state’s unemployment compensation program, and generate additional workload which may result in delays in decisions or benefit payments.”  –  US Department of Labor Regional Administrator

Letter to US Department of Labor and supporting documents

March 19, 2014

Mr. Gay Gilbert, Administrator

Office of Unemployment Insurance Employment and Training Administration
U.S. Department of Labor
Frances Perkins Building
200 Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20210

Dear Mr. Gilbert:

I am writing to request that the Department of Labor begin an immediate investigation into improper actions by Iowa Workforce Department Director Teresa Wahlert.  I believe she has and continues to violate federal laws requiring the fair and impartial administration of unemployment insurance benefits.

Through her actions, Director Wahlert has sent a clear message to her employees that Administrative Law Judges in Iowa Workforce Development are expected to rule in favor of employers when ruling on claims for unemployment compensation benefits.

In summary, I am especially concerned about:

Director Wahlert having created a hostile work environment for Administrative Law Judges that do not abide by her pro-employer, anti-employee philosophy.  In recent weeks, I have had several conversations with current and former Unemployment Insurance Administrative Law Judges about the Director and the hostile work environment.

Director Wahlert is directly interfering in the independence of Administrative Law Judges. I have received clear evidence supporting this claim. I have also read a letter from Department of Labor, Regional Administrator Holly O’Brien, to Commissioner Paquette from Maine. In that letter Ms. O’Brien stated that “when pressure, real or perceived, is exerted upon first-level appeals hearing officers to rule in favor of one side or the other, the persons or entities exerting that pressure are interfering with the decision about an individual’s rights.” Instead of upholding the integrity of an impartial hearings process, Director Wahlert has exerted undue pressure on the Administrative Law Judges.

Director Wahlert eliminated the position of Chief Administrative Law Judge after the person in that position refused her request to tally up all the decisions by each Administrative Law Judge and determine how often they ruled in favor of the employers and how often they ruled in favor of the employees. (I have not enclosed evidence but the former Chief ALJ is willing to testify.)

Director Wahlert increased her efforts to put undue pressure on Administrative Law Judges by becoming their direct supervisor after eliminating the Chief Administrative Law Judge’s position.  There was no effort to insulate the Administrative Law Judges from Director Wahlert, a political appointee.

As a result, it was easier for Director Wahlert to directly intervene in day-to-day activities of Administrative Law Judges. For example, Director Wahlert sent an email to Administrative Law Judges as part of a fishing expedition for gossip and sensational details about decisions that had not yet been finalized. Director Wahlert’s email stated: “What are the cases on tongues past week? And by whom?”  (I have enclosed a copy of the email.)

Director Wahlert asked an Administrative Law Judge to develop “tip sheets” for employers to guide employers how to win cases. There were no similar requests by Director Wahlert to ask Administrative Law Judges to develop “tip sheets” to help employees in such cases. For example, one Administrative Law Judge was asked to do a “tip sheet” to help employers discharge employees for off-duty conduct that is not work related. (It should be noted that the Iowa Workforce Development’s website already features a 44-page document entitled “Unemployment Insurance Handbook for Employers.”)

Director Wahlert directed the Administrative Law Judges to be involved with “outreach to community and business leaders.” Some Administrative Law Judges believe this would interfere with their ability to impartially judge cases.  (I have enclosed emails on this issue.)

Director Wahlert changed policies and practices that previously insulated Administrative Law Judges from other activities within Iowa Workforce Development. For example, Wahlert initiated a new policy to require Administrative Law Judges to participate in general Workforce Development staff meetings and in other Iowa Workforce Development programs that potentially interfere with the independence that Administrative Law Judges must maintain.

Director Wahlert requires one of the team leader Administrative Law Judges to send regular emails to all other Administrative Law Judges containing a list of Administrative Law Judges and the number of cases heard and decisions filed each week. This score keeping has resulted in a hostile and intimidating work environment according to some Administrative Law Judges.

The bottom line is that Director Wahlert is intentionally interfering with the neutrality and basic fairness of the appeals system in an effort to favor employers over employees. Federal law prohibits such interference.

Thank you for considering this request. I would be more than willing to provide any further information that might be helpful.

Sincerely

Bill Dotzler
State Senator

Supporting Documents (click here for links)

u140911_Hendricksmeyer_Tip Sheet for off duty conduct
130817_Wahlert_Reply to late decision call log and current work conditions
130818_Wahlert_Cases on tongues
131007_Hillary_ Old Case Reports October 4 2013
140227_OBrien_Maine Unemployment Facts
110721_Wahlert_Reply to Appeals Update
110920_Walsh_Quick Poll
130719_Walsh_Quick Poll Refusal of Suitable Work
130816_Wahlert_ Reply to ALJ Stephenson & ALJ Hendricksmeyer Friday meetings change

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