(The Center Square) - The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled the Department of Commerce's Division of Workforce Services must turn over information about how it determined eligibility for pandemic-related unemployment to a nonprofit.
Legal Aid Arkansas said many of its clients had trouble qualifying and receiving unemployment during the pandemic. The nonprofit filed a Freedom of Information Act request with DWS in Oct. 2020, according to the Supreme Court's ruling.
DWS turned over some records but redacted some of the information, saying the release of the information would make it harder for the department to investigate fraud cases and it would give "advantage to competitors or bidders." Legal Aid filed its lawsuit in February 2021 in Pulaski County Circuit Court asking for unredacted records. The lower court ruled in favor of Legal Aid and DWS appealed.
The state Supreme Court said in its ruling that applicants for unemployment benefits are not "competitors" or "bidders."
"This exemption is intended to protect “trade secrets and other proprietary information businesses submit to governmental entities to satisfy regulatory requirements or for other purposes," the court said in its ruling. "While DWS argues that we should employ a common-sense approach and determine that this exception also applies to its fraud factors and algorithms, it is the job of the General Assembly to establish exemptions to the FOIA, and this court can only interpret the exemption as it is written."
Two justices dissented. Justice Shawn Womack said, "sovereign immunity bars this FOIA action against the Division of Workforce Services, a state agency. "
Justice Barbara Webb cited the need to withhold the information for potential criminal investigations.
"When law enforcement agents and investigations are not in jeopardy, it is my interpretation of the FOIA that the information should be disclosed as the media and the public have a broad and powerful right to the information held by their government," Webb said in her dissenting statement "However, this case presents a situation where disclosure would harm a criminal investigation at the expense of the public."
Legal Aid praised the decision Friday.
"This decision is important because it helps ensure transparency in how algorithms and other technology are utilized in vital social safety net programs," Legal Aid officials said in a statement on its website.