- Associated Press - Monday, January 5, 2015

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - An unemployment appeals judge said Monday that he is retiring early, a decision that comes months after he told lawmakers that he and others at Iowa Workforce Development felt they were losing their judicial independence.

Marlon Mormann, whose retirement was effective immediately, said he departs with disappointment after enduring what he called the worst year of his 24-year state career.

“I’m ready to be done with it,” Mormann, 58, told The Associated Press after informing his supervisor at Workforce Development headquarters in Des Moines.

Mormann told a legislative panel in August that administrative law judges who rule on unemployment benefits cases faced pressure and excessive caseloads under Workforce Development Director Teresa Wahlert, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Terry Branstad. Mormann asked lawmakers to “please help us,” saying the judges’ decisions were unfairly tainted by a perception that a pro-business administration was pressuring them to rule in favor of employers.

In fact, he said Wahlert’s management changes have had the opposite effect. Judges’ caseloads are so grinding that they have become exhausted, which has affected their decisions, he said. He added that tired judges more often take the “default position,” in which they rule against whoever has the burden of proof. In most unemployment cases, that would be employers seeking to get out of paying benefits to fired workers.

“They are losing more often. This has become an anti-business adjudicatory unit just because of caseload,” said Mormann, who estimates he ruled on more than 15,000 cases in his career.

Workforce Development spokeswoman Kerry Koonce disputed Mormann’s claim that judges are overworked, saying their caseloads remain below the national average. She rejected his “anti-business” claim.

“I don’t even know where he’s going with that,” she said.

Mormann informed Wahlert of his intent to retire a month ago, Koonce said.

The employment status of Susan Ackerman, the other judge who testified critically of Wahlert to the Senate Government Oversight Committee, isn’t clear. Koonce said Ackerman has been “out of the office” since last month and her cases were reassigned, but that she remains an employee. Koonce said she can’t comment further because personnel issues are confidential.

Mormann and Ackerman objected to Wahlert’s decision in 2013 to lay off a chief judge who managed others in the unemployment appeals bureau and to take on that responsibility herself. That judge, Joseph Walsh, has filed a lawsuit alleging he was illegally fired for standing up to what he calls Wahlert’s pro-business agenda. Wahlert says it was a budget cut.

Mormann, a Republican, said he believed the decision for judges to be supervised by a non-lawyer who is a political appointee raised ethical questions. He also took issue with Wahlert’s decision to make some judges serve as lead workers with part-time caseloads, saying that change increased work done by the already-taxed remaining judges.

He said lead workers applied intense pressure seeking to change his position on cases in which employees quit instead of being fired. Mormann said that historically, those employees automatically qualified for benefits but the lead workers wanted them to be treated the same as fired employees.

Despite his plea to lawmakers, he said things didn’t get any better after his testimony. Mormann said he took an extended vacation beginning in October and soon learned his phone was turned off and his office reassigned. He said he was disappointed he only was given a minor role in training two new judges.

“It’s a good system, but it can be jacked around for political reasons,” he said of the unemployment appeals process.

Koonce said Mormann’s office was reassigned to judges not on vacation.

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