Law Center Challenges SSA Benefit Suspensions

Article excerpt

Eldercare and the Law

The following article is the second in a new series in Aging Today developed with the National Senior Citizens Law Center.

THE CASE: Martinez v. Astrue is a national class action filed by the National Senior Citizens Law Center (NSCLC) and several other public interest organizations with the law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson as pro bono cocounsel. The case seeks to stop a Social Security Administration (SSA) policy of suspending the benefits of people who have outstanding arrest warrants, after verifying that law enforcement agencies are not pursuing the individual.

THE PEOPLE: Roberta Dobbs is a 75-year-old retired woman in Durant, OkIa., with limited mobility who has been in and out of the hospital for the last several years. She has a terminal diagnosis and requires oxygen 24 hours a day. She has relied on her Social Security Widow's benefits and limited savings to finance a modest but secure retirement. Three years ago, Ms. Dobbs was stunned when the SSA suspended her benefits. It didn't take long before she exhausted her savings and had to rely on the generosity of neighbors and members of her church. It was not until three years later, at the beginning of this year, that her benefits were restored.

Sharon Rozier received Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits after a motor vehicle accident in which she was ejected from the vehicle, resulting in a traumatic brain injury. She is unable to walk, has severe memory loss, limited ability to speak and cannot care for herself. Nevertheless, the SSA suspended her benefits. She has been taken in by her sister in Minneapolis who has a full-time job and is also raising two children with disabilities.

THE ISSUE: Why did Social Security cut off benefits to such frail individuals who obviously are in dire need? Their benefits were suspended because they each had an outstanding arrest warrant, although in each case they were not aware of the existence of the warrant, and law enforcement authorities were not interested in pursuing them. Ms. Dobbs and Ms. Rozier are just two of more than 100,000 people who have had their Social Security or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits suspended under similar circumstances. Social Security claims that the authority for suspending benefits in such cases is a section of the Social Security Act that authorizes suspension of benefits when an individual is "fleeing to avoid prosecution." However, the SSA interprets this provision to'allow them to suspend benefits whenever they believe the person has an outstanding felony arrest warrant, even if the individual has no knowledge mat criminal charges have been filed: the SSA contends that a person can be fleeing without knowing it. …