Learn more about the people this settlement will help.
The Martinez v. Astrue settlement will reinstate benefits to hundreds of thousands of Social Security beneficiaries who rely on Social Security payments for their livelihood and their health and safety. It will also relieve these individuals of repaying any “overpayment” of benefits assessed by SSA under this policy. Here are the stories of named plaintiffs.
Rosa Martinez, the lead plaintiff in the case, is a 52-year-old disabled woman from Redwood City, California who received a notice from SSA last December that she was losing her only source of income — her disability benefits — because of a 1980 arrest warrant for a drug offense in Miami, Florida. Ms. Martinez has never been to Miami, has never been arrested and has never used illegal drugs. In addition, she is eight inches shorter than the Rosa Martinez identified in the warrant. Despite the abundance of evidence pointing to the fact that she was not the Rosa Martinez named in the Miami warrant, SSA would not allow her to appeal the suspension of her benefits until the warrant was vacated. The SSA offered Ms. Martinez no assistance in clearing up the error, leaving it up to her to figure out how to clear someone else’s warrant in Miami when she was in Northern California and SSA had cut off her income. Fortunately, by filing the lawsuit she was able to maintain her benefits. Ms. Martinez would otherwise have had no way to pay rent, buy groceries or cover her medical costs.
Roberta Dobbs is a 75-year-old Oklahoma woman who suffers from a terminal lung condition, relies on oxygen to breathe and requires an electric wheelchair to get around outside the house on her own. Her health has been fragile and she has been in and out of the hospital for the last several years. In January, 2006, Ms. Dobbs was discharged after a lengthy hospital stay only to discover that, SSA had sent her a notice a month earlier while she was in the hospital telling her they were planning to suspend her Social Security Retirement benefits because of a 2001 arrest warrant. Shortly after that she received a notice telling her to pay back nearly $12,000 in benefits previously received. At the time Ms. Dobbs was unaware that there was any warrant for her arrest.
Ms. Dobbs had lived in California before moving to be with family in Oklahoma in 2001. At the time she was preparing to move, she was in an automobile accident when she made an improper left turn and was hit by a vehicle moving at an excessive rate of speed. The police questioned her and gave her a field sobriety test and took her license. Three months later the California Department of Motor Vehicles issued an order finding that her blood alcohol level was under 0.08% and set aside the suspension of her license. She thought that was the end of the matter and did not realize that in the interim a DUI charge had been filed against her in California.
Ms. Dobbs attempted in vain to appeal the suspension of her benefits at her local SSA office. She was told that she was too late to appeal even though she was well within the 60 day time limit for appeal specified in SSA regulations and in the notice she received. The SSA office repeatedly told her that she could not appeal or reapply for benefits unless the arrest warrant against her was vacated. Although Ms. Dobbs eventually obtained the assistance of the Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma Seniors Program, which finally convinced the district attorney in California to drop the charges against her, SSA insisted she was still required to pay back her overpaid benefits and could not receive benefits until she did so.
Ms. Dobbs went without benefits for three years during which time she exhausted her life savings and relied on Oklahoma Old Age Assistance of $46 per month and the assistance of friends, family and church, as well as the Meals on Wheels program. When her furnace broke she could not afford to replace it. She instead relied on a space heater with an open flame. When her house was robbed and vandalized she was not able to repair the damage or replace the electric wheel chair and furniture that were stolen. Ms. Dobbs was left housebound. Through the lawsuit her benefits were restored and she received back benefits to cover the period in which her benefits were withheld. She plans to use the back benefits to install a new heating system, repair her house and replace the wheelchair.
Miami, Florida resident Joseph Sutrynowicz’s disability benefits were cut off in November, 2008 after SSA computers found a warrant related to an alleged bounced check written in 1996 at a grocery store in Abilene, Texas. Mr. Sutrynowicz, who does not balance his check book and admits to having difficulty with numbers, had no knowledge of the bounced check. He had lived in Abilene for a few months while working on location painting airplanes. He left when the job ended and had not returned since. As in all of these cases, authorities in Abilene were not interested in extraditing Mr. Sutrynowicz.
In addition to threatening to suspend his benefits, the SSA sent Mr. Sutrynowicz a notice demanding that he repay nearly $43,000 in disability benefits that he had received since January, 2005. Lacking the resources to pay back fines or travel back to Texas to clear up the matter, Mr. Sutrynowicz went without benefits in November and December, 2008. Without any other form of income, Mr. Sutrynowicz was forced to rely on the kindness of strangers and free food provided at support meetings to survive. Had his landlord not allowed him to live rent free for a number of months, he would have become homeless.
Mr. Sutrynowicz’s involvement in this lawsuit forced SSA to investigate his situation. When they discovered that the offense underlying the warrant was a misdemeanor, not a felony, they agreed to restore his benefits.
Relying on a California arrest warrant dating back to 2004, the SSA determined that Sharon Rozier, a paraplegic with severe memory loss and great difficulty speaking, was fleeing to avoid felony prosecution and suspended her benefits in April, 2007. Ms. Rozier’s injuries resulted from a devastating car accident in Arizona in 2006. The accident left her unable to remember anything about the alleged crime for which the warrant was issued. She was also unable, due to her physical condition, to return to California to investigate the allegations or request that the warrant be vacated. Authorities in California were not seeking to extradite Ms. Rozier.
Court records also revealed that the charges were not filed until two years after she left California and that they still had her California address. The charge against her was listed as a violation of a California statute concerning misrepresentations resulting in the receipt of public benefits in an amount in excess of $400. Details are not available.
Despite ongoing efforts by her relatives, Ms. Rozier was unable to get her benefits restored until the lawsuit was filed. During that time she had no income and relied solely on the generosity of her family to survive. Her lack of income left her unable to care for her two minor children who stayed with her adult daughter in Arizona while family members in Indiana and Minnesota made extraordinary sacrifices in order to care for her.
Jimmy Howard, a 20-year-old with developmental disabilities, was living in a group home in California when he lost his benefits. SSA had determined that he had fled from prosecution of a 2001 felony in Ohio when he was 12 years old. As a troubled 12-year-old Mr. Howard ran away from home to get away from his stepfather. According to court documents he was later found in a grocery store and was charged with theft, criminal damaging and breaking and entering and was sent to a juvenile detention facility. There, this 4’7”, 85-pound 12-year-old was further charged with assault for kicking a staff member of the facility while he was being mechanically restrained. When he appeared in court, he was released in the custody of his mother pending the results of a competency evaluation. While the charges were still pending, his mother decided to leave the stepfather and took Jimmy with her to California. A warrant was subsequently issued. Mr. Howard does not remember anything about his arrest or the charges against him. Since he had no other income the loss of benefits stalled his efforts to move out of the group home and live independently for the first time.
N.B. The statute that SSA is relying on provides that benefits can be suspended only if the underlying charge from which someone is supposedly fleeing is a felony. Yet 12-year-olds in Ohio, as in many other states, cannot be charged with felonies.
Brent Roderick is a 45-year-old resident of Bellingham, Washington who committed a crime in 1987. However, he was convicted and completed his sentence more than 20 years ago. Nevertheless, in 2006 he was denied SSI benefits because of a warrant from that 1987 offense.
Back in 1987 he was living in San Luis Obispo, California and borrowed a car without disclosing that he was planning to relocate to Bellingham, north of Seattle. When the car was not returned, the owner notified police and Mr. Roderick was charged in California with the unlawful taking of a vehicle. Subsequently, police in Whatcom County, Washington ran a check on the vehicle, discovered it had been reported stolen in California and charged Mr. Roderick with possession of stolen property. He agreed to plead guilty to the Washington charges after the public defender assured him that the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney had agreed to dismiss the California charges since prosecution there would constitute double jeopardy.
After Mr. Roderick was sentenced in Washington in 1987, he thought that was the end of the matter. However, in 2006 his application for SSI was denied because of the 1987 California warrant, which was still on the books. He then contacted the Whatcom County Public Defender who, in turn, called the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney who recognized that the continued existence of the warrant was the result of an oversight and promptly agreed to dismiss all charges in California on grounds of double jeopardy. The charges were formally dismissed in January 2007. Nonetheless, SSA continued to insist that its action was correct because there was a warrant on the books at the time of Mr. Roderick’s application in 2006.