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LAFLA

Ethnic News Media Covers Lawsuit Settlement For Those Wrongly Cut Off from Social Security and SSI Benefits

News Release from New America Media

LOS ANGELES, April 15, 2010—Thousands of vulnerable elders and people with disabilities-disproportionately from ethnic groups--can now become eligible again for wrongly denied Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. Many will receive past benefits from $10,000-$40,000-due to a class action lawsuit against the Social Security Administration (SSA).

Leading public-interest attorneys involved with the federal case and vulnerable individuals whose Social Security and related assistance were erroneously terminated held a press briefing on Thursday, April 15, at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center in Los Angeles to alert the public to what affected individuals must do to recover lost benefits or start receiving future aid. The briefing was supported by the California Community Foundation. More than 20 ethnic news media organizations were in attendance.

In Martinez v. Astrue, SSA agreed in a Federal District Court settlement last Fall to repay more than $500 million to people whose Social Security, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Special Veterans Benefits were withheld, because their names appeared in an arrest-warrant database. Please check out the Government Benefits Section of this website for more details.

Often the warrants involved traffic or minor infractions, and sometimes were for completely different people with the same name as someone with a past warrant. The 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.

"Thousands of people in Los Angeles County were illegally deprived of Social Security and SSI benefits," said Gerald A. McIntyre, lead attorney in the case for the National Senior Citizens Law Center (NSCLC) in Los Angeles. "Now they have the opportunity to receive enough money in back benefits to get decent housing and to make real changes in their lives."

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 also states, localities and charities were forced to fill the humanitarian gap.

"We are excited that these class members, who are in desperate need, will finally get some relief. It is extremely gratifying to have been a part of making the settlement happen and we hope that everyone who is eligible gets the message and participates in the settlement, "said David Fry, a partner at Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP in San Francisco who represented the plaintiffs.

Affected people, many of them difficult to reach, must know they have to apply for reinstatement or denied aid. "About 7000 low-income seniors and disabled individuals in Los Angeles lost benefits unjustly, and we hope to contact them through our outreach," said Yolanda Arias, managing attorney of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) East Office.

Disability Rights California was also instrumental as co-counsel in the class action lawsuit.

Nationally, the court finding will assist 200,000-300,000 people, who were wrongfully denied benefits after Jan. 1, 2000, or who in some cases were refused assistance from 2000-2006. In some circumstances people have only a limited time to become eligible again.

SSA launched the program for SSI in 1996 and it extended to Social Security disability and old-age benefits in 2005. The program is supposed to halt payments to people regarded as "fleeing to avoid prosecution."  However, SSA applied it on the basis of an outstanding warrant alone, whether the person knew charges had been filed or not, according to McIntyre. To make matters worse, he emphasized, benefits were suspended only if law enforcement authorities were not interested in pursuing the individuals arrest.  Thus the individuals affected were almost always those with minor offenses or offenses from many years ago.

LAFLA government benefits staff attorney, Ryan Bradley, explained, "The Martinez v. Astrue settlement applies a common sense definition to the phrase ’fleeing to avoid prosecution.’ Under Social Security’s previous definition, elders and those with disabilities were considered ’fleeing’ even if they were unaware they had a warrant or if the law enforcement agency involved was not interested in arresting or prosecuting them."

In the class-action agreement, SSA and its administrator Michael J. Astrue agreed to reinstate people such as the plaintiff in the case, Rosa Martinez, 53, of Redwood City, Calif., scheduled to speak at the Los Angeles briefing. The agency stopped her disability benefits in 2008, claiming that her name and birth date matched another Rosa Martinez-a woman eight inches taller and who had a 1980 drug warrant in Miami. The California Martinez had never visited Miami.

At the April 15 briefing in Los Angeles, attorneys will explain what affected people need to do to obtain their past benefits and to begin receiving future help. In some cases those eligible need to take action before certain deadlines.

In Los Angeles, people needing help to apply for individual claims should contact LAFLA at 800-399-4529 or for more information visit http://www.lafla.org/service.php.

Elsewhere in California, people can contact their local legal services office; those ages 60 or older can contact their local area agency on aging for a free referral for legal services assistance. For a complete state list, visit the California Department of Aging website: http://www.aging.ca.gov/local_aaa/AAA_listing.asp.

To learn more about the class action settlement, visit www.nsclc.org/areas/social-security-ssi/Martinez-Settlement.  Or visit the Social Security website at www.ssa.gov/martinezsettlement.