A class-action lawsuit against Social Security Administration (SSA) resulted in a settlement in excess of $500 million this past August. At press time, the more than 200,000 people who were wrongfully denied benefits or who had benefits wrongfully suspended were in line to be eligible to apply for Social Security, Social Security Disability and/or Special Veteran’s benefits. About 80,000 people are eligible to receive back benefits.
Martinez v. Astrue challenged the methods that SSA used to implement a federal statute that is intended to prevent people from using government monies to flee arrest. SSA used automated software to match names in a warrant database to those who were receiving SSA benefits, which led to false matches. Furthermore, those who lost benefits were incorrectly told that they could not appeal the decision.
“A major problem with SSA is that they often deny people their right to a proper hearing,” which is a frequent issue in this lawsuit, says David H. Fry of law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson. Hearing denials, in addition to the hardship of acquiring legal representation, made it impossible for hearing officers to consider the facts of individual cases, says Fry, who led the legal team that represented the plaintiffs.
For example, a developmentally disabled child missed a juvenile court hearing because his mother moved him out of state. He had been charged with kicking a state employee. “The court issued a warrant because he missed the hearing,” Fry says. It took SSA 5 years to suspend the child’s disability benefits. Fry contends that had SSA held a hearing, it would have known that this child was not fleeing prosecution and not suspended the benefits. “SSA makes other kinds of decisions without holding the proper hearing,” Fry warns.