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Court restores social security benefits to 140,000; Victims may recover as much as $1 billion

Thursday, April 19, 2012

  • National Senior Citizens Law Center

As many as 140,000 Americans nationwide will get their Social Security or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits restored as a result of an order issued by Judge Sidney H. Stein in a federal court in Manhattan on April 13, 2012. The benefits in question date back to October 2006 and may total $1 billion.


The order is the culmination of more than five years of litigation in Clark v. Astrue - Docket No. 06-15521 (S.D.N.Y.) - a case brought against the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) challenging its practice of relying exclusively on outstanding probation and parole warrants as sufficient evidence that individuals are in fact violating a condition of probation or parole as a basis for denying them benefits. Rather than check the facts of a case, SSA merely matched warrant databases against its records.


When it found a probation or parole warrant in the name of someone who was receiving benefits, SSA checked with law enforcement and, if the law enforcement agency was not actively pursuing the individual, SSA would cut off that individual's benefits. In March 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the agency's practice of relying solely on outstanding probation or parole violation arrest warrants to suspend or to deny benefits conflicted with the plain meaning of the Social Security Act.


Under Judge Stein's order, the SSA is enjoined from denying or suspending benefits in this manner and must reinstate all previously suspended benefits retroactive to the date the benefits were suspended. The SSA has until June 12, 2012, to submit a plan setting forth its anticipated time frames for implementing the terms of the order.


The unlawful policy caused widespread suffering while it was in effect. Elaine Clark, one of the lead plaintiffs, had her benefits stopped in the beginning of 2006 because of a warrant from Santa Clara County, CA, where she had been sentenced to probation and ordered to pay restitution. During that time, she was diagnosed with end-stage renal disease on top of other ailments and was no longer able to work. Unable to get a kidney transplant in California, she returned to her hometown of Buffalo, NY, when she learned the waiting time there would be far less. Although she obtained the transplant, she was still in need of extensive medical care and unable to work. Her modest Social Security benefit was barely enough to pay the rent at the long-term care facility and not sufficient to pay the required restitution. Ms. Clark died in 2008 at the age of 65. All the while, law enforcement officials in California knew where she was and knew of her condition, and had no interest in pursuing her.


Judge Stein's order is the latest in a series of favorable federal court rulings challenging the SSA's practice of using outstanding warrants to deny benefits. A related lawsuit in California, Martinez v. Astrue, resulted in relief for a class of more than 200,000 people who received hundreds of millions of dollars in retroactive benefits in addition to reinstatement of current benefits.


A copy of Judge Stein's Order can be read here. Plaintiffs in the case are represented by the National Senior Citizens Law Center, the Mental Health Project of the Urban Justice Center, and pro bono counsel from global law firm Proskauer Rose LLP.


Further details for advocates and consumers will be posted to the NSCLC website soon. Background on the case can be found here and a press release here.

Pro Bono and legal aid attorney resources - Pro Bono Net