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Lawsuit Restores Help for Thousands Denied Social Security, SSI

Paul Kleyman | 5/2/2010, 11:09 a.m.

Class Action Lawsuit to Return Over $500 Million to Those Wrongly Cut-Off

Rosa Martinez didn't know what to do when the Social Security Administration told her two years ago that the agency was stopping her disability assistance because she had an outstanding 1980 arrest warrant for illegal possession of prescription drugs in Miami. A resident of Redwood City, Calif., she has never visited Miami.

Martinez, now 53, had to quit work as a health care worker when she developed fibromyalgia, a painful and energy-sapping chronic condition. With her only income source terminated, she borrowed from friends and family to make her rent and buy food. She pleaded with a series of bureaucrats that she could not be the same Rosa Martinez named in the old warrant, a Rosa eight inches taller. But those please fell on deaf ears.

"Maybe God put me in this situation so I could help others," she said at a New America Media press briefing, where she and legal aid attorneys described how she became the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit, Martinez v. Astrue, against the Social Security Administration. Michael Astrue is the Social Security commissioner.

The class action lawsuit led to federal court settlement that will return up to $500 million to about a quarter million people, who had their Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) supports wrongfully cut off by the Social Security Administration (SSA).

Outreach is critical, though, because many people who lost their benefits over the last 10 years must reapply to Social Security. In some cases eligible people have only about six months to apply or they risk permanently losing those benefits.

"It's an absolute tragedy," stated attorney Nicole Perez of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. People who the federal government had agreed were elderly or too disabled to work often found their financial safety net unjustly pulled out from under them, Perez said.

Numerous people lost much of their medical coverage because they could no longer pay Medicare premiums for doctor visits or outpatient care. In some states outside of California people lost medical treatment because those states link SSI to Medicaid eligibility.

"It's going to be difficult to find these folks," Perez stressed.

Some have moved from one cheap hotel to another, and others ended up homeless without the government support they need to survive. Consequently, there's no address where they can receive official notices from Social Security that they can now reapply, she said. Even those with a cell phone frequently couldn't pay their phone bill.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) will soon be notifying people, mainly by mail, that they can reapply for assistance. However, those with limited English proficiency are especially vulnerable, she noted. "For instance I have one client who is a monolingual Korean speaker. If Social Security sends him a letter in English, he would have no idea of what it would say."

In settling Martinez v. Astrue, SSA agreed to repay or reinstate benefits for people whom the program denied assistance, because their names appeared in an arrest-warrant database.

Public interest attorneys found that the warrants often were for minor infractions, old traffic tickets or bounced checks. One California plaintiff had a Texas warrant he didn't know about because of a rent check for only $300 he'd written years ago with insufficient funds, according to Gerald A. McIntyre, lead attorney in the case for the National Senior Citizens Law Center (NSCLC), which lodged the class action. The man's warrant was classified as a felony instead of a misdemeanor because the state had not updated an old law to account for decades of inflation, he said.

McIntyre explained that Social Security erroneously applied a 1996 federal law aimed at stopping benefits for fleeing felons to people who did not fit that very rare and small group.

The Martinez settlement will not help those who were denied benefits because they were convicted and sentenced for a crime and violated their probation or parole or who have an outstanding warrant for flight or escape," he said.

Ironically, he said, Social Security cut people's economic lifelines after the agency notified law enforcement agencies of the person's address--and the local police declined to pursue the arrest or, in some case, try to bring them back for trial from another place.

"If it's shoplifting, they're not going to try to extradite someone from another state," McIntyre said.

McIntyre emphasized that because the people affected were neither fugitives on the run--those who the law targeted--or accused of violations serious enough for police to pursue once Social Security notified them of the person's whereabouts, "they were almost always people with minor infractions."

Among those disproportionately affected were African Americans and Latinos because those populations tend to have lower incomes and more confrontations with the criminal justice system.

Sometimes warrants were for completely different people, such as Martinez, said McIntyre. In one case, an older black woman with the first name of Willie lost her assistance when Social Security confused her with a man named Willie who had been charged with rape.

Martinez knows she was fortunate to have had her income stopped for only four nerve-wracking months. When Social Security finally sent a check under the settlement for those months, the amount quickly went to repay those who had helped her.

Other plaintiffs in the class action were denied their benefits for years. McIntyre has already seen some plaintiffs receive from $10,000 to over $40,000. "Now they have the opportunity to receive enough money in back benefits to get decent housing and to make real changes in their lives," he said.

McIntyre added, "The prior policy undermined the purpose of SSA programs, which are designed to provide a basic level of support for our most vulnerable citizens. It was also inconsistent with other important national objectives, such as the prevention of homelessness." Not only did individuals face "disastrous" consequences, he said, such as loss of health care, but states, localities and charities were forced to fill the humanitarian gap.

SSA settled the class action with no admission of wrong-doing, and Martinez remains upset about how the agency treated those who were cut off. "When you are on disability people shouldn't stop you or step on you and step on you," she said. "We are human beings. No matter how small you are, you have to be treated in the right way."

Under the terms of the settlement, the government is only paying the benefits owed. It is not paying punitive damages for the suffering of the disabled and elderly Americans it wrongfully failed to pay.

Attorneys urged those who might have been affected to go online as soon as possible to inform the Social Security Administration of their current mailing address and to contact their local legal aid foundation for help in filing to restore their benefits. Many can provide help in multiple languages. The NSCLC has more information about the case, including explanations in Spanish and Creole, on its website , as does the the Social Security Administration .

Editor's Note: Thanks to a class-action court settlement, a quarter-million elders and people with disabilities can now reapply for wrongly stopped or denied Social Security or SSI benefits. Those cut off because of old or mistaken arrest warrants can reclaim their share of $500 million in lost benefits nationally.