Social Security to Repay Over $500 Million in Unlawfully Withheld Benefits

The Social Security Administration will repay more than $500 million in benefits that were illegally withheld from 80,000 people whose benefits have been suspended or denied since January 1, 2007.  SSA’s agreement to pay these funds is part of a class action settlement that was granted final approval last week by a U.S. District Court Judge.  In addition, people whose benefits were suspended or denied between 2000 and 2006 will be notified of the new policy and given a chance to re-establish eligibility. In total, over 200,000 people may see their benefits reinstated and/or receive back payments due to the settlement. All beneficiaries must continue to be eligible for benefits in order to receive payments.

The settlement resolves a lawsuit, Martinez v. Astrue, challenging SSA’s method of implementing a narrowly drawn provision of the Social Security Act.  The law aims to prevent people from using government benefits to escape arrest.  Yet rather than figuring out which Social Security recipients were actually fleeing prosecution, SSA used a computer matching system that matched names in warrant databases to those at SSA.  Many of the matches and automatic benefit suspensions involved false or unproven allegations, minor infractions or long-dormant arrest warrants. Although regulations provide for an appeal process, individuals losing benefits were routinely, inaccurately informed by SSA staff that they could not appeal.

Under the agreement, SSA has stopped, as of April 1, 2009, suspending or denying benefits due to the mere existence of a warrant – unless the warrant is issued in a criminal proceeding on a charge such as flight or escape.  This change in policy will benefit thousands of additional people every month from now on.

Note: this case/settlement does not apply to beneficiaries whose benefits were suspended or denied due to suspected parole or probation violation.

This agreement will take full effect as of November 30, 2009. Delivery of relief to class members will occur in 2010 and beyond. Class members should confirm their correct address is on file with the SSA, thus ensuring they receive the mailings when sent out next year.

National Senior Citizens Law Center (NSCLC), pro bono counsel from the law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson, the Mental Health Project of the Urban Justice Center, Disability Rights California, and the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County all represented the plantiffs in this case.

See NSCLC’s website section on the Martinez Settlement for more information.

This article was edited in part from NSCLC’s press release and current update.

Karen Joy Fletcher

Our blogger Karen Joy Fletcher is CHA’s Communications Director. With a Masters in Public Health from UC Berkeley, she is the online “public face” of the organization, provides technical expertise, writing and research on Medicare and other health care issues. She is responsible for digital content creation, management of CHA’s editorial calendar, and managing all aspects of CHA’s social media presence. She loves being a “communicator” and enjoys networking and collaborating with the passionate people and agencies in the health advocacy field. See her current articles.