Business & Money

Social Security to repay those wrongfully denied benefits

By Justine Drennan -New America Media- | Last updated: Sep 3, 2009 - 2:28:35 PM

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The Social Security Administration (SSA) has agreed to repay more than $500 million to people whose benefits have been withheld since Jan. 1, 2007, because their names and birth dates matched those of people with arrest warrants.

Often the warrants involved traffic or other minor infractions, and sometimes were for completely different people with the same name.

The class action lawsuit, Martinez v. Astrue, settled in August by U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken, in Oakland, Calif., will assist the 200,000 people. The agreement not only ordered restitution for 80,000 people wrongfully denied benefits, but it also enabled another 120,000 individuals who were refused assistance from 2000-2006 to reapply for help or ask for back payments.

Martinez v. Astrue began in early 2008 when the SSA stopped the disability benefits for chief plaintiff Rosa Martinez, 52. The SSA said her name and date of birth matched those of a 5'4” woman with a 1980 drug warrant in Miami. The Rosa Martinez who lost her benefits is 4'8,” lives in Redwood City, Calif., and has never been to Miami.

“They just told me I won't be getting any more social security because I committed a crime in 1980,” Ms. Martinez said. “I was in a state of shock. And since then I became really sad and upset because I didn't know what was happening to me. I was depending on this money.”

The SSA's warrant screening policy was intended to prevent people from using benefits to flee prosecution. However, “the vast majority of class members were not fleeing at all; many never knew that criminal charges were pending against them, let alone that a warrant had been issued,” said Gerald McIntyre, attorney from the National Senior Citizens Law Center (NSCLC), one of the organizations representing the plaintiffs. Among other groups joining the suit were the Urban Justice Center and Disability Rights of California.

“How many people hold up a bank and then run down to the Social Security office?” Atty. McIntyre asked, explaining that the SSA policy has generally affected people who committed minor offenses.

The SSA policy has had “disparate impact” on Blacks and other ethnic minorities, Atty. McIntyre said, because they are “probably more likely to have had run-ins with the police.”

Some of those denied assistance committed no offenses at all. They were subjects of false or unproven allegations, or the SSA's matching system flagged them because warrants existed for other people who shared their names and dates of birth.

In order to identify individuals “fleeing to avoid prosecution,” Atty. McIntyre said, the SSA would search for matches by first and last name and social security number, but if they could not find a match, they would search for matches by name and date of birth.

Atty. McIntyre has been fighting the policy on warrants for years. In a 2004 case, Garnes v. Barnhart, he successfully argued that cognitively impaired Marlo Garnes was not fleeing the law when her mother moved with her from Virginia to California to care for Ms. Garnes' ailing grandfather. Before moving, Ms. Garnes had been charged with failing to return a rental car. She was unable to appear at her hearing because a fire had closed down the courthouse.

A series of cases like Ms. Garnes' forced the SSA to alter its procedure in individual cases. Even though federal appeals courts also ruled against the SSA in individual cases in the Northeast in 2005, the agency continued the policy in other parts of the United States.

Often, SSA officials incorrectly informed people, such as Ms. Martinez, that they could not appeal their benefit suspension, or the agency failed to process appeals.

“The only way to get them to change it was to bring class action,” Atty. McIntyre said. “We needed a sympathetic lead plaintiff, who also illustrated an issue we'd seen before.”

Ms. Martinez, who stopped working due to fibromyalgia, diabetes and liver problems, was an ideal plaintiff.

“There was enough information available to the SSA to show it wasn't her,” Atty. McIntyre said.

When the Social Security office incorrectly told Ms. Martinez that she could not appeal their decision, she went for help to the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County, the organization that initially helped her obtain her social security benefits.

Ms. Martinez, a grandmother who raised her two daughters on her own, was a nursing assistant with the Aging and Adult Services of San Mateo until her health problems forced her to stop. When her benefits stopped, she had to borrow money from family members, but still had trouble paying for health care, food and rent.

“I had to work very hard,” Ms. Martinez said. “And then get this treatment. It's not right! I'm not a lazy person that's just getting money for nothing.”

“If you have stress, fibromyalgia gets worse,” said Christopher Douglas, Ms. Martinez's lawyer with Legal Aid. “It's safe to say that this experience exacerbated her disabilities for a period of time.”

Others have had to face still worse situations after losing their benefits. Atty. McIntyre said a man in Iowa ended up homeless after losing his benefits because of an old shoplifting charge.

“A couple weeks later they found his body beaten up in nearby park,” Atty. McIntyre said.

Roberta Dobbs, 76, another plaintiff in the class action, was unaware of a warrant from a minor driving violation until the SSA suspended her benefits in 2006. While her appeal remained unprocessed for three years, Ms. Dobbs struggled to pay for the 24-hour oxygen therapy that she requires for her terminal lung condition.

Because of Martinez v. Astrue, the SSA suspended its warrant matching policy on April 1. Judge Wilken scheduled a final “fairness” hearing on Sept. 24 to hear any further objections to the settlement terms. Atty. McIntyre said additional argument would be unlikely. The agency, headed by Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue, said the SSA will not comment until after a final hearing.