The Department of Employment and Economic Development prohibited Minnesota high school students from receiving “pandemic unemployment assistance” benefits under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES).
It was a classic David and Goliath case. “When you’re up against the government, you’re almost by definition, representing an underdog,” said Merz, a partner with Lathrop GPM. “But I also find that government lawyers are, for the most part, very skilled at what they do and trustworthy.”
DEED argued that high school students have not been eligible for state unemployment benefits under Minnesota law and therefore had no rights to federal unemployment money, either. Merz believed state law did not dictate national policy and found DEED’s argument “did not make sense at all.”
Still, an unemployment-law judge had ruled for DEED in the case, brought by high school student Hayat Muse. When Merz explained the federal benefits were designed to assist people not covered by state unemployment law, he convinced the Minnesota Court of Appeals to overturn the unemployment law judge’s decision.
Merz has a long career involving government actions affecting his clients, who mainly work in health care, telecommunications and other heavily regulated industries.
None of Merz’s pro bono cases has had the broad impact of the Youthprise decision, allowing thousands of high school students to receive more than $10 million in federal benefits. “It’s far and away the biggest case I’ve ever worked on and may end up being the biggest case I’ll ever work on in terms of the breadth of the impact the outcome,” he said.
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