On September 24, 2009, U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken granted final approval of a settlement agreement reached between plaintiffs and the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) in this national class action challenging SSA’s policy of relying on outstanding warrant information to suspend or deny benefits.
A law passed in 1996 prohibits payment of benefits to individuals who are “fleeing to avoid prosecution” for a felony. Rather than attempting to determine whether a person is actually fleeing, SSA had been using a crude computer matching system to suspend or deny benefits based only on an outstanding warrant, resulting in the suspension of benefits of thousands of elderly, poor, and disabled Americans who are not “wanted,” and in some cases may have been completely misidentified.
SSA’s so-called “Fugitive Felon Program” has been held illegal in several federal cases. Indeed, due to Fowlkes v. Adamec, a case decided by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and in which UJC appeared with other organizations as amicus curiae, SSA had to suspend much of the program in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont. However, until the settlement in Martinez, SSA continued its policy in the rest of the country.
Beginning April 1, 2009, and pursuant to the settlement agreement, SSA will only suspend or deny benefits based on warrants that are issued for flight or escape. The settlement also provides relief to hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries whose benefits have been suspended or denied in the past.
Approximately 80,000 individuals suspended or denied after January 1, 2007 or who had a live, pending administrative claim as of August 11, 2008 will be reinstated and paid back benefits worth a total of at least $500 million. Within this group, recipients of Social Security disability or retirement benefits are scheduled to be reinstated retroactively by June, 2010. Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) recipients are scheduled to receive full retroactive reinstatement by December, 2010. For these class members, it will not be necessary to file a new application. The process should be automatic for OASDI recipients, but SSI recipients will have to re-establish financial eligibility.
Those suspended or denied between January 1, 2000 and December 31, 2006 will receive notice and the opportunity to be reinstated as of April 1, 2009. These individuals are scheduled to receive a notice by December 31, 2010. The proposed settlement also provides for relief of the repayment of “overpayment” of benefits assessed by SSA under this policy.
This unlawful policy has had devastating consequences on the lives of elderly, poor, and disabled individuals, many of whom rely upon Social Security benefits as their only income and, without their rightfully due benefits, have been unable to pay for rent or other basic necessities. This settlement will allow class members – many of whom have been rendered destitute, homeless, and dependent on relatives and charity – to rebuild their lives.
Representation of plaintiffs was led by National Senior Citizens Law Center and pro bono counsel Munger, Tolles & Olson, and included MHP, Disability Rights California, and Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County.
Further details regarding the implementation of this settlement will be posted to this webpage in the future.