RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Attorneys for the head of the Virginia Employment Commission and the five women suing her have started settlement discussions in the federal class-action lawsuit alleging “unconscionable bureaucratic failures” at the state agency has kept people from receiving unemployment benefits.

On April 15, multiple legal aid groups and two law firms working pro bono filed the lawsuit in federal court in Richmond on behalf of five Virginia residents. Last week, the Virginia attorney general’s office, which is representing VEC Commissioner Ellen Marie Hess, asked U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson for an extension to respond to the lawsuit.

Hudson originally agreed to give the VEC until May 11, not May 29 as they hoped, but then granted another extension to May in a court order filed Monday. He revealed the legal teams had initiated settlement talks in his order.

“The parties have since begun settlement discussions which the Court believes may be fruitful,” Hudson wrote in the order.

A spokesman for one of the legal aid groups representing the plaintiffs, the Legal Aid Justice, told 8News on Thursday that Hudson and the parties met Monday to discuss how to solve issues at the commission.

“We appreciate the intervention of Judge Hudson and are hopeful this will quickly lead to a resolution for our clients and the classes named in the suit,” Jeff Jones, a Legal Aid Justice Center spokesman, said in an email.

A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office referred 8News to the Virginia Employment Commission. A VEC spokeswoman declined to comment on the settlement talks.

The class-action lawsuit claims the commission, which is in charge of the state’s unemployment insurance benefit system, violated federal and state unemployment laws and claimants’ due process rights under the U.S. Constitution for failing to promptly respond to claims, complaints and rule on cases involving those who had their benefits abruptly stopped.

The plaintiffs, who wanted a trial by jury, sought “declaratory and injunctive relief” and “adjudication and payment of unemployment benefits, a prohibition against further violations of law and for such declaratory and injunctive relief as may be appropriate; for attorneys’ fees and costs,” according to the lawsuit.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, over the first three months of the year Virginia ranks last in the nation in making determinations on cases within 21 days. The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission has been tasked with reviewing how the Virginia Employment Commission has processed unemployment insurance claims. 

The JLARC study, set to come Nov. 15, will examine the pandemic’s impact on VEC, the effectiveness of its response, how the employment commission administered the state’s unemployment insurance program. It will also look into how VEC will modernize its IT program, a 12-year effort that resumed in April, according to JLARC’s executive director.