The Social Security Administration (SSA) agreed to pay over $500 million to more than 200,000 people denied Social Security benefits because they were wrongly thought to be fleeing felons.

Lawsuit Targets Fleeing Felon Practice

Congress amended the Social Security Act in 1996 to authorize the withholding of benefits to anyone fleeing prosecution for committing a felony. To enforce this provision, the SSA suspended benefits to anyone whose name appeared in a computer database of outstanding arrest warrants.

A class action lawsuit, Martinez v. Astrue, alleged that the SSA's practice wrongly denied benefits to people who had a warrant for only a minor violation that did not constitute fleeing prosecution. Benefits were also unfairly cut off to people having the same name as a wanted fugitive.

Last week, the SSA agreed to change its practices in a proposed settlement reached in the case. The agency will only suspend payments to those having outstanding felony arrest warrants for crimes of flight or escape. The SSA also agreed to provide more than $500 million to pay back withheld benefits to as many as 80,000 people and to restore benefits to as many as 120,000 others.

Who Is Affected by the Proposed Settlement?

You may be in the settlement class and entitled to the repayment or reinstatement of Social Security benefits if you were denied:

  • Social Security retirement, survivors, or disability insurance benefits
  • Special veterans benefits
  • Supplemental Security Income payments
  • You were not permitted to serve as a representative payee to beneficiaries of those programs on the ground that you were fleeing to avoid prosecution or custody or confinement after a conviction for a felony

This settlement does not apply to people who were denied benefits due to a warrant based on a violation of probation or parole. Also, anyone who already received a final federal court decision in an individual action regarding SSA's fugitive felon policy is not included in the settlement.

When Will the SSA Provide Settlement Benefits?

The court has set a fairness hearing for September 24 to consider any objections before granting final approval of the settlement. Notice of the proposed settlement is available online. You don't need to do anything if you agree with the settlement. If you disagree with the settlement, you have until September 10 to submit written objections to the court and the attorneys involved in the action.

Once the court gives final approval to the settlement, the SSA will notify the affected individuals and start to fulfill its terms. The agency plans to provide relief in phases through the end of 2010.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Am I eligible to collect Social Security disability benefits?
  • Should I apply for Social Security disability benefits or Supplemental Security Income benefits?
  • What is the difference between the two programs?
  • How should I appeal the denial of Social Security disability benefits?

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