03/28/2012 04:24 pm ET

Michigan Unfairly Cut Benefits For Some Welfare Recipients, Judge Rules

The State of Michigan can't use a federal limit on welfare benefits to cut aid those who meet state eligibility for cash assistance, according to a Genesee County Circuit Judge.

Judge Geoffrey Neithercut ruled Tuesday that Maura Corrigan, Director of the Michigan Department of Human Services, "exceeded her authority" when she used the federal limit to justify the removal of more than 11,000 state-qualified families from welfare rolls last year, the Associated Press reports.

Michigan lawmakers instituted a four-year lifetime limit on cash assistance in 2007 and passed a stricter measure last year that reduces lifetime state benefits to 48 months.

But the state DHS wrongly used federal limits to cut benefits for Michiganders who hadn't yet reached the state limits, Neithercut said. The judge's ruling does not apply to families that surpassed the state's 48-month limit.

Maureen Taylor, head of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, told The Huffington Post the court's decision came as a vindication to her organization.

"It's tremendous that there's one judge that recognizes the demonic nature of retroactive punishment," she said.

The phones at Taylor's office have been ringing off the hook with calls from clients wanting to find out what the hearing means, but she cautions against too much optimism. "You've been offered a raft for just one hour or a day," she tells clients. "The drowning process has stopped for [just] one moment."

Federal welfare limits offer few exceptions, but Michigan does provide exceptions to its state lifetime benefits limit. Michigan law provides exceptions for a number of factors, including disability, age, and spousal abuse.

But critics, including Taylor, say the state is not honoring appeals from residents looking for limit exceptions, citing the federal guidelines. "We've been involved with 32 hearings in the last few months and lost every one based on their interpretation that no exemptions exist," she said.

Taylor said she expects the state to appeal Neithercut's ruling.

DHS spokesman Dave Akerly had no immediate comment on whether the state would appeal the decision. "We are still reviewing the opinion by the Circuit Court. We have no other comment at this time, but will have a statement to make once the review of that ruling is complete," he wrote in an email.