- Associated Press - Thursday, March 2, 2017

PHOENIX (AP) - Arizona’s social services agency has received an extraordinary rebuke after a judge found it failed to file scores of court appeals requested by citizens who were denied benefits.

The order from the chief judge of the Arizona Court of Appeals instructed the Department of Economic Security to immediately file appeals of unemployment and food stamp decisions or face contempt of court proceedings.

Judge Michael Brown’s unusual order came after the court learned that as many as 140 appeals that the department was required to file had been held - some for more than two years.

The Feb. 13 order gave the agency 20 days to file those appeals and required new appeals to be filed within 30 days.

People who should qualify for unemployment or food stamps are under financial stress and delays can lead to problems paying for rent or other necessities.

DES spokeswoman Tasya Peterson said Thursday the agency has filed all the old cases in court and will follow the order in the future.

The agency also sent letters to people who were affected by the delays and it expected to complete a search for cases it may have missed by the end of the day, Peterson said.

She blamed the problems on turnover in the specialized unit dealing with appeals and “inefficient processes.”

The agency determines eligibility for unemployment insurance compensation, food stamps and cash welfare assistance. People who are denied benefits can appeal using the agency’s internal process, and if that appeal is denied file for a court review.

It’s those court reviews that DES failed to file.

The seven-page order from Judge Brown details how the agency’s appeals began trailing off wildly in 2014 and slowed to a trickle by the current budget year that began July 1.

The order does not outline how the issue came to the court’s attention but noted that one of two appeals received in December was nearly a year old. A batch of appeals received in January included seven from 2014.

The department informed the court in late January that it still had 144 cases to transmit, with 60 of those more than a year old.

A spokesman for Gov. Doug Ducey said his office told DES to quickly resolve the problems and review their administrative practices.

“We’re confident that with new leadership at DES, this will not happen again,’ spokesman Daniel Ruiz said in a statement.

Ducey fired agency director Tim Jeffries in December after months of news reports detailing hundreds of firings and other problems at the agency. It is now being run by an interim director, Henry Darwin.

Peterson said she believed the unit where the appeals were mishandled was not affected by the firings.

DES is the state’s largest agency and employs more than 7,000 people.

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