Clark v Astrue: Court of Appeals Rules SSA Policy on Probation/Parole Violators Unlawful

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has ruled that the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) policy of suspending Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits whenever someone has an outstanding warrant for an alleged violation of probation or parole is unlawful. Clark v. Astrue, 602 F.3d 140 (2nd Cir. 2010), 2010 WL 986544 (Mar. 19, 2010). The decision vacated a district court judgment awarding summary judgment to the government and denying plaintiffs’ motions for summary judgment. 2008 WL 4387709 (S.D.N.Y.).

The appeal revolved around the interpretation of statutory provisions which prohibit the payment of benefits to individuals who are “violating a condition of probation or parole.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 402(x)(1)(A) & 1382(e)(4)(A). Judge Calabresi, writing for a unanimous court, concluded that SSA’s “practice of treating a warrant alleging that a recipient is violating a condition of probation or parole as sufficient and irrebuttable evidence that the recipient is in fact violating a condition of probation or parole is inconsistent with the plain meaning of the Social Security Act.” In reaching this conclusion, the Court rejected the government’s argument that it is not equipped to make case-by-case determinations of whether an individual is violating a condition of probation or parole, because “that is precisely what, we conclude, Congress has required it to do before it may suspend benefits.”

The government had also argued that because the statutory good cause provisions authorize SSA to restore benefits when a warrant is vacated, therefore the mere existence of a warrant must be a basis for suspending benefits in the first place. The Court rejected this argument because it concluded that the good cause provisions do not apply to probation and parole violations because the good cause provisions apply only to warrants for a “criminal offense and probation and parole violations are not criminal offenses.

The case was filed as a putative class action and plaintiffs will likely file for class certification on remand to the district court. The impact of this decision is likely to be substantial since plaintiffs estimate that over 100,000 people have had their benefits suspended or denied under this policy.

The facts of the named plaintiffs are illustrative of the problems faced by class members. Plaintiff Elaine Clark had been sentenced to probation in California and was ordered to pay restitution. Around the same time she was diagnosed with end stage renal disease and was unable to obtain a kidney transplant in California and was also unable to pay the restitution on her modest Social Security check. She instead moved back to her hometown of Buffalo, NY where she was able to receive a kidney transplant. As her probationary period was coming to an end, a warrant was issued in California in order to retain jurisdiction and continue the obligation to pay restitution when she was able to do so. Her Social Security benefits, her only source of income, were stopped and she was threatened with eviction from the facility on a nursing home campus where she resided. Ms. Clark has since died without having her benefits restored.

Plaintiff Tony Gonzales of Oregon City, Oregon had his Social Security Retirement benefits stopped because, as a teenager, he had been sentenced to three years probation for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle in Los Angeles. He first learned that a warrant had been issued in 2006 when SSA suspended his benefits. Unlike other class members he was able to go to Los Angeles, where the court vacated the warrant and terminated probation, noting there was no evidence of any violation.

The statutes at issue in Clark are part of the same statutes that were at issue in Fowlkes v. Adamec, 432 F.3d 90 (2nd Cir. 2005) and Martinez v. AstrueNo. CV-08-4735-CW (N.D. Cal. Sept. 24, 2009). Those cases concerned the provision which prohibited payment of benefits to anyone who was “fleeing to avoid prosecution” for a felony. SSA’s policy for these two different provisions was the same for both, i.e., a warrant alone is sufficient basis for suspending benefits. Martinez was settled in September, 2009 and restores potential eligibility for over 200,000 people, some of whom may be entitled to retroactive relief worth over $500,000,000. See, Martinez v Astrue.  For further information, contact Gerald McIntyre in the NSCLC Los Angeles office.


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