A proposed settlement has been reached in Martinez v. Astrue, No. 08-CV-4735 CW (N.D. Cal.). The settlement will obligate the Social Security Administration to halt procedures which in recent years have caused the unjustified denial or suspension of benefits for tens of thousands of persons. The plaintiffs are represented by NSCLC, the private firm Munger, Tolles & Olson, the Urban Justice Center, Disability Rights California, and the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County.
The case was filed in October 2008 to challenge the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) interpretation of a statutory provision prohibiting payment of benefits to anyone who is “fleeing to avoid prosecution” for a felony. SSA applied this provision by suspending or denying Social Security, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Special Veterans Benefits (SVB) benefits to anyone who had an outstanding arrest warrant for a felony. They also refused to certify anyone as a representative payee in each of these programs if the person had an outstanding felony warrant. Plaintiffs contended, as did every court that has examined the issue so far, that the statutory language required a determination of the individual’s intent before benefits could be suspended or denied.
Intent is important: almost none of the claimants have had an intent to flee from prosecution. Although SSA acted as if its actions were directed against “fleeing felons,” the reality is very different. Often the warrants are decades old, and based upon trivial offenses or administrative mistakes. In some cases, the denial or suspension is based on a mistake in identity resulting from a flaw in the way SSA matches warrant information with their database, with the claimant happening to have the same name and date of birth as a person with an arrest warrant.
Furthermore, the claimants generally have not “fled” – they may simply have moved to seek work or be closer to family or friends and often did not even know that criminal charges were pending. In some instances, the claimant was a minor when the move was made, and had moved along with his or her family.
Under the terms of the settlement SSA has agreed to change its policy going forward beginning April 1, 2009. Under the new policy SSA will not initiate action to suspend or deny benefits under this provision unless an arrest warrant was issued under one of three National Crime Information Center (NCIC) codes pertaining to: (1) escape; (2) flight to avoid prosecution; or (3) flight – escape. The experience of advocates is that these three categories constitute an extremely small percentage of all suspensions and denials under the previous policy.
In addition to changing the policy going forward, SSA will cease collecting any overpayments related to the challenged policy and will pay full retroactive benefits to eligible individuals who have been suspended or denied since January 1, 2007 and who continue to be otherwise eligible, as well as to all people who had a live administrative claim on this issue on August 11, 2008. SSA has also agreed to send a notice to anyone whose benefits have been suspended or denied since January 1, 2000 advising them that the policy has been changed and that they may now be eligible for benefits.
For further information see Martinez v Astrue.