Case Clears Way for Social Security Payments to Quarter-million
Editor’s Note: Thanks to a class-action court settlement, a
quarter-million elders and people with disabilities can now reapply for wrongly
stopped or denied Social Security or SSI benefits. Those cut off because of old
or mistaken arrest warrants can reclaim their share of $500 million in lost
New America Media
Rosa Martinez didn’t know what to do when the Social Security
Administration told her two years ago that the agency was stopping her
disability assistance because she had an outstanding 1980 arrest warrant for
illegal possession of prescription drugs in Miami.
A resident of Redwood City, Calif., she has never visited Miami.
Attorneys Nicole Perez (right and Marilyn Holle. (Julian Do, NAM)
Martinez, now 53, had to quit work as a health care worker when she developed
fibromyalgia, a painful and energy-sapping chronic condition. With her only
income source terminated, she borrowed from friends and family to make her rent
and buy food. She pleaded with a series of bureaucrats that she could not be the
same Rosa Martinez named in the old warrant, a Rosa eight inches taller. But
those please fell on deaf ears.
“Maybe God put me in this situation so I could help others,” she said at a
New America Media press briefing, where she and legal aid attorneys described
how she became the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit, Martinez v.
, against the Social Security Administration. Michael Astrue is the
Social Security commissioner.
The class action lawsuit led to federal court settlement that will return up to
$500 million to about a quarter-million people, who had their Social Security
and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) supports wrongfully cut off by the Social
Security Administration (SSA).
Outreach is critical, though, because many people who lost their benefits over
the last 10 years must reapply to Social Security. In some cases eligible people
have only about six months to apply or they risk permanently losing those
“It’s an absolute tragedy,” stated attorney Nicole Perez of the Legal Aid
Foundation of Los Angeles. People who the federal government had agreed were
elderly or too disabled to work often found their financial safety net unjustly
pulled out from under them, Perez said.
Numerous people lost much of their medical coverage because they could no longer
pay Medicare premiums for doctor visits or outpatient care. In some states
outside of California people lost medical treatment because those states link
SSI to Medicaid eligibility.
“It’s going to be difficult to find these folks,” Perez stressed.
Some have moved from one cheap hotel to another, and others ended up homeless
without the government support they need to survive. Consequently, there’s no
address where they can receive official notices from Social Security that they
can now reapply, she said. Even those with a cell phone frequently couldn’t
pay their phone bill.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) will soon be notifying people, mainly
by mail, that they can reapply for assistance. However, those with limited
English proficiency are especially vulnerable, she noted. “For instance I have
one client who is a monolingual Korean speaker. If Social Security sends him a
letter in English, he would have no idea of what it would say.”
In settling Martinez v. Astrue
, SSA agreed to repay or reinstate benefits
for people whom the program denied assistance, because their names appeared in
an arrest-warrant database.
Public interest attorneys found that the warrants often were for minor
infractions, old traffic tickets or bounced checks. One California plaintiff had
a Texas warrant he didn’t know about because of a rent check for only $300
he’d written years ago with insufficient funds, according to Gerald A.
McIntyre, lead attorney in the case for the National Senior Citizens Law Center
(NSCLC), which lodged the class action. The man’s warrant was classified as a
felony instead of a misdemeanor because the state had not updated an old law to
account for decades of inflation, he said.
McIntyre explained that Social Security erroneously applied a 1996 federal law
aimed at stopping benefits for fleeing felons to people who did not fit that
very rare and small group.
The Martinez 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,” he said.
Ironically, he said, Social Security cut people’s economic lifelines after the
agency notified law enforcement agencies of the person’s address—and the
local police declined to pursue the arrest or, in some case, try to bring them
back for trial from another place.
“If it’s shoplifting, they’re not going to try to extradite someone from
another state,” McIntyre said.
McIntyre emphasized that because the people affected were neither fugitives on
the run—those who the law targeted—or accused of violations serious enough
for police to pursue once Social Security notified them of the person’s
whereabouts, “they were almost always people with minor infractions.”
Among those disproportionately affected were African Americans and Latinos
because those populations tend to have lower incomes and more confrontations
with the criminal justice system.
Sometimes warrants were for completely different people, such as Martinez, said
McIntyre. In one case, an older black woman with the first name of Willie lost
her assistance when Social Security confused her with a man named Willie who had
been charged with rape.
Martinez knows she was fortunate to have had her income stopped for only four
nerve-wracking months. When Social Security finally sent a check under the
settlement for those months, the amount quickly went to repay those who had
Other plaintiffs in the class action were denied their benefits for years.
McIntyre has already seen some plaintiffs receive from $10,000 to over $40,000.
“Now they have the opportunity to receive enough money in back benefits to get
decent housing and to make real changes in their lives,” he said.
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 states,
localities and charities were forced to fill the humanitarian gap.
SSA settled the class action with no admission of wrong-doing, and Martinez
remains upset about how the agency treated those who were cut off. “When you
are on disability people shouldn’t stop you or step on you and step on
you," she said. "We are human beings. No matter how small you are, you
have to be treated in the right way.”
Under the terms of the settlement, the government is only paying the benefits
owed. It is not paying punitive damages for the suffering of the disabled and
elderly Americans it wrongfully failed to pay.
Attorneys urged those who might have been affected to go online as soon as
possible to inform the Social Security Administration of their current mailing
address and to contact their local legal aid foundation for help in filing to
restore their benefits. Many can provide help in multiple languages. The NSCLC
has more information about the case, including explanations in Spanish and
, as does the the Social
Along with NSCLC, co-counsels in the class action were the Disability Rights
California, the law firm of Munger, Tolles and Olson, the Mental Health Project
of the Urban Justice Center, and the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County.