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The Wall Street Journal

September 26, 2009

Read the article online here


Social Security owes 'fugitives' millions

By: Ellen E. Schultz

A federal judge approved a civil-court settlement requiring the Social Security Administration to repay $500 million to 80,000 recipients whose benefits it suspended after deeming them fugitives.

The supposed fugitives include a disabled widow with a previously suspended driver's license, a quadriplegic man in a nursing home and a Nevada grandmother mistaken for a rapist.

They were among at least 200,000 elderly and disabled people who lost their benefits in recent years under what the agency called the "Fugitive Felon" program. Launched in 1996 and extended to Social Security disability and old-age benefits in 2005, the program aimed to save taxpayers money by barring the payment of Social Security benefits to people "fleeing to avoid prosecution."

But some federal courts in recent years have concluded that most people the agency identified as fleeing felons were neither fleeing nor felons. The problem: Social Security employees relied on an operations manual stating that anyone with a warrant outstanding is a fugitive felon, whether the person is actually fleeing or attempting to avoid being captured.

The Social Security Administration, which neither admitted nor denied wrongdoing as part of the settlement, declined to comment.

The National Senior Citizens Law Center, an advocacy group for the elderly and disabled, sued the Social Security Administration in an Oakland, Calif., federal court last year on behalf of people denied benefits, and asserted that most warrants -- some decades old -- were for minor offenses and most people were unaware they existed.

Roberta Dobbs, a 75-year-old widow in Durant, Okla., who uses a wheelchair and is tethered to an oxygen tank, was deemed a fugitive in 2006 because of an outstanding 2001 warrant issued in California following a traffic accident while Mrs. Dobbs was moving from her home. Her benefits were cut off for three years, forcing her to rely on friends, family and charity.

Some "fugitives" were victims of mistaken identity. To identify felons, the agency cross-checked its database with databases of old warrants obtained from various law-enforcement agencies. If a match was found -- of a person's first and last name, and either Social Security number or date of birth -- the person was deemed to be a fugitive and his benefits suspended. The program didn't compare middle initials or gender.

Willie Mae Giacanni, 79, a retiree near Reno, Nev., was informed by the Social Security Administration in 2006 that her $350 a month benefit would be suspended because of a warrant outstanding in New York, a state she has never visited.

She said she "called different precincts," trying to find out what she was wanted for. A detective told her the warrant was for Willie Frank Thomas, who was wanted for kidnapping and rape in 1972. Although Mrs. Giacanni's first husband's surname was Thomas, and the suspect shared her birth date, he had a different Social Security number, middle name, gender and race, according to the New York City Police Department's fugitive-enforcement division.

The detective sent Mrs. Giacanni a letter to give to the Social Security office, stating that the warrant wasn't for her, but the agency wouldn't accept it. Mrs. Giacanni sought help from a legal-aid attorney, who got the matter resolved. The agency declined to comment.

Even if people succeeded in clearing their warrants, the SSA had maintained they shouldn't have been paid benefits while the warrant was outstanding, and pursued them for the "overpayment." Mrs. Dobbs ultimately got her warrant vacated with the help of a legal-aid lawyer in 2008, but the Social Security Administration said it wouldn't resume her benefits until she repaid $11,802 for benefits she received in 2005.

As part of the settlement, the agency agreed to drop its claims for "overpayments."

After the NSCLC sued the agency, the SSA agreed in April to a proposed settlement to suspend benefits only for people who are charged with escape or flight to avoid prosecution. Under the pact, SSA stopped suspending benefits and agreed to repay benefits suspended between January 2007 and April 2009.

Most repayments will begin to go out late this year. Mrs. Dobbs received $37,970.

People whose benefits were cut off before 2007 could reapply for benefits, but would receive retroactive payments only to April 2009. An estimated 120,000 people fall into this category, said Gerald McIntyre, a lawyer for the NSCLC.

The settlement is good news for Catherine and James McMahon, a retired nurse and teacher in their 60s, who unsuccessfully applied for Social Security disability benefits for their son, James Jr., who was struck by a truck and paralyzed in 2006.

The couple was told their son, who resides in a nursing home, was ineligible for benefits because of a 1991 warrant. "It had something to do with a late night college party," said Mrs. McMahon. Her son, now 35, thought the matter was resolved after several court dates.

Now her son will receive about $735 a month in benefits, retroactive to early 2007. The money will help provide for his two young children, whom the McMahons are raising.