Saturday, April 24, 2010

Lawyers try to find beneficiaries of $500 million settlement from wrongful Social Security benefit denials

From the Bell Gardens Sun in Calif.:

Rosa Martinez (pictured center), 52, of Redwood City, Calif., was denied disability benefits for four months when the Social Security Administration confused her for a Miami woman with the same name and birth date, but who was eight inches taller and had an outstanding drug-related arrest warrant.

“First of all, I have never been in Miami, and I have never been accused of anything because I am a very honest person, hardworking person, and I was very, very disappointed,” Martinez, who stands 4’8”, said.

When she went to correct the mistake, the social security office staff turned her away, telling her it was up to her to prove she was in fact not the woman from Miami.
“Social security was really harsh on me. I needed the money to survive and they left me three to four months without benefits…,” Martinez said at a New America Media press conference last week.

But Martinez considers herself lucky compared to some of the estimated 200,000 to 300,000 others who were wrongly taken off the Social Security rolls due to mistaken identity or for having warrants out minor infractions.

Many of these people are believed to have unjustifiably gone without benefits for several years, and some may not have had, as Martinez did, family members or friends who could support them after their sole source of income went away.

“Believe me, it’s not easy to be sitting down and saying ‘Hey, I am almost homeless.’ Thanks to God that didn’t happen to me, and thanks to the lawyers,” she said.

In 2008, Martinez became the lead plaintiff of a national class action lawsuit, Martinez v. Astrue, against the Social Security Administration (SSA), that last fall resulted in a $500 million settlement benefiting people whose Social Security, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Special Veterans Benefits were stopped because their names showed up in an arrest-warrant database.

People who were wrongly denied benefits after Jan. 1, 2000, or who in some cases were refused assistance from 2000-2006 could regain some or all of the benefits back because of this court finding.

But the case’s lead attorney Gerald A. McIntyre and legal aid groups around the country are having trouble spreading the good news. They found that many people had moved from their original residences, presumably because they could no longer afford the rents or payments after losing their benefits.

Attorney Yolanda Arias of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, LAFLA, believes there are 7000 “low-income seniors and disabled individuals” locally who were victims of mistaken identity or were denied their benefits because existing law was wrongly applied to them.

The group plans on doing outreach to organizations that reach a wide swathe of people they think are affected by the settlement. Deadlines apply to some of those who are eligible for settlement benefits.

“Thousands of people in Los Angeles County were illegally deprived of Social Security and SSI benefits,” McIntyre said, “Now they have the opportunity to receive enough money in back benefits to get decent housing and to make real changes in their lives.”

In many of these cases the victims were already struggling to get by when they lost their benefits, living on low-income budgets, possibly homeless or becoming homeless, and in need of the benefits to survive, the lawyers said.

In 1996, SSA started a program to withhold benefits from people “fleeing to avoid prosecution,” which at the time was considered an “innocuous” rule, McIntyre said.

“Who is going to commit a felony and then run down to the social security office while they’re fleeing to avoid prosecution?” he asked.

It was rare that this rule led to the denial of social security benefits, he said, but somewhere along the way, the SSA started to broaden its application to any person with an outstanding felony arrest warrant, no matter how minor, and even when the person was not “fleeing.”

Congress “apparently were pressured to apply this statute,” McIntyre said, because initially “there weren’t that many people who were affected.”

So the SSA started matching first names, last names, and social security numbers to information in federal, state and local warrant databases. Since SSA has the address of the person, its first step was to notify the law enforcement agencies so that the person could be apprehended.

If the person is not apprehended, the SSA would halt the benefits, but it turned out the majority of people who remained “at large” only did so because the authorities felt their offenses were too minor for extradition and were not interested in pursuing them. In some cases, those with warrants were never even notified the police had even issued something.

The SSA’s program would end up targeting people with warrants for such offenses as shoplifting at a convenience store, bouncing a check, or holding outstanding debts, McIntyre said, and in many cases it would target homeless people, who are frequently picked up by police for one offense or another.

As an added twist, if a warrant match was made but the person was not receiving benefits, SSA would then search its rolls by date of birth to find another match.

“That’s where someone like Rosa Martinez is in trouble, because I can assure you already today there have been several Rosa Martinez’s born in the United States. And that’s how someone like Rosa who has never had any contact with the criminal justice system gets wrapped up in it,” McIntyre says. In another case, a woman was confused for a man with the same name, but who had an arrest warrant.

As part of the settlement, the SSA has narrowed the application of the rule to only those who are fleeing to avoid prosecution, McIntyre said.

Los Angeles SSA spokesperson Veronica Diaz said they are notifying affected people in phases to help “manage this extensive” process. They expect to finish notifying people by September 2010. If the person has moved, they will use available forwarding addresses in the U.S. Postal system.