July 12, 2012

24-year-old claim pits man against TWC

AUSTIN (KXAN) - A Central Texas man says he's been targeted by the Texas Workforce Commission for a 24-year old debt he does not owe.

And he may not be alone.

KXAN has discovered that the state agency has sent thousands of notices to people it claims have either been overpaid benefits or received benefits they were not qualified to receive decades ago.

And the commission is going after every one of them. But as KXAN learned, the agency's records are old and incomplete. In some cases, the agency relies on "summaries" to help them figure out what may have happened.

It's a system that is not good enough, said David La Caille of Liberty Hill.

La Caille, a successful sales consultant, is learning firsthand that if the state says you owe it money, the debt may never go away. It doesn't matter even if you think that you don't owe the state a dime.

"This has cost me a lot of time, money, aggravation, effort," La Caille said.

It started in the late 1980s

His dispute with the Workforce Commission can be traced back to late 1988 when he drew unemployment compensation.

Now, TWC claims LaCalle owes the state nearly $3,000 because he was not entitled to those benefits.

LaCaille told KXAN he spent 2 1/2 years as a window tinter for a company called TrimLine Design in the late '80s. But he was laid off and applied for unemployment.

But about a year ago, the TWC served him notice that the agency now believes he had taken a job after leaving TrimLine and was fired for inappropriate conduct. That would make LaCaille ineligible for the unemployment checks he had drawn.

"The Texas Constitution does not allow state agencies to forgive debt," said Lisa Givens, spokeswoman for the Texas Workforce Commission.

Other old claims are also being re-examined, she said.

The news stunned LaCaille because he said his old boss had to let him go because he couldn’t afford to pay him anymore. So, LaCaille says he went back to school and soon started working for the company he’s been with ever since.

"There is absolutely no employer between TrimLine Design and the company I work for today," LaCaille told KXAN.

The hearing process

LaCaille had filed an appeal and requested a hearing. It didn’t go well. The first hearing LaCaille was called in for on Oct. 13, 2011, couldn’t actually take place because the hearing officer couldn’t access the file.

"Your case is so old I can't pull it up in the system," the hearing officer told LaCaille, according to a recording provided to KXAN.

Then, in the next hearing, on Nov. 7, 2011, there were more problems. The hearing officer didn't know who that second employer was, or who allegedly had fired Lacaille for "misconduct," as noted in the file, which is now on microfiche.

“The employer is not identified,” the hearing officer told LaCaille. “The determination states that you were discharged from your last work due to the misappropriation of funds," the hearing officer continued.

"Wait, there was misappropriation of funds?" asked LaCaille.

"Yeah, that's what the document states," the hearing officer responded.

"Holy smokes! I was a window tinter, I didn't have access to funds," LaCaille told the hearing officer.

KXAN asked the Texas Workforce Commission if those old, incomplete case records were reliable.

"We have summary information that we're standing behind that we know is accurate, and that determination is that the overpayment is correct," Givens said.

Givens said that if LaCaille would have disputed this claim when it was made 24 years ago, there would be no discrepancy. Givens also said that as stewards of the state's money, the TWC must account for every dollar.

While Givens did acknowledge that some of the records are on microfiche and incomplete, she said the agency does have accurate summaries of older cases like LaCaille’s.

"That information was based on information we had at the time, and also, this individual has had opportunities to appeal recently and that information has still not come forward," Givens said.

Who has the burden of proof?

Should the state have to prove someone owes back unemployment benefits, or should Texans have to prove they don’t?

Even though TWC now claims LaCaille must have had a job after TrimLine Design, all records in LaCaille’s file show TrimLine Design as the last known employer.

So, KXAN did what the state didn't do, which was to track down the LaCaile's former boss from TrimLine Design, Roger Fowler.

"No, he did not get fired," Fowler said. "I had to let him go."

Fowler said he'd have no qualms about hiring LaCaille today if he were still in business.

So the question remaining is, did LaCaille get fired from another job, as TWC alleges. But the agency cannot ask that question because there's no existing record of employment. That came out in the last appeal hearing on Feb. 7, which LaCaille lost.

"What we can't tell from this -- because they didn't put it on the forms back then -- is the employer involved? We don't know who that is," the hearing officer

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