Hugh Held and Orion Masters of Los Angeles, California have been together for more than 20 years. When marriage to a person of the same sex became legal in California for a brief period in 2008, they were excited to ‘take the plunge’ and exercise a right they did not expect they would ever have when they first met. Little did they anticipate that their marriage would one day put them in economic peril.
Hugh and Orion are an extremely low-income couple and both receive federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to cover their basic needs. SSI is a program that provides extremely poor seniors and people with disabilities with a federal benefit of $733 a month for a single person and $1,100 a month for an eligible married couple. In some states, such as California, the benefit is enhanced slightly by a state supplement. Since, for a married couple, the income and resources of a spouse are counted when determining eligibility, an SSI recipient who gets married will always see their benefits decrease.
From the outset, when Hugh went to the SSA office to apply for SSI and on subsequent visits, he was accompanied by Orion. Later in March, 2013, in the course of a routine redetermination, after they learned that the Supreme Court was going to decide a challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), they asked whether their marriage would affect their benefits. They were told not to worry, that it would have no impact on their benefits. Then, on June 26, 2013 the Supreme Court struck down Sect. 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as unconstitutional; that’s when it became illegal to deny federal benefits to individuals who were married under the laws of their state. After the Windsor decision, Hugh went back to SSA to ask if the new decision would impact his benefits. This time he was told it might impact his benefits, but that they did not know how. Again, he was told not to worry. The SSA would be in touch. Until then, he would get his benefits just as he always had.
Fast-forward one year later to June 2014: Hugh was hit with a $6,205 bill from the SSA with no explanation. The notice also detailed a reduction in his benefits from $877.40 a month to $308.10. After months of calls and confusion, Hugh found out that the SSA had now decided to recognize his marriage to Orion—one year after DOMA was struck down and six years after their wedding day. The real kicker, however, is the $6,205 bill. After more than a year of inaction and discrimination, the SSA is demanding to be repaid for the time period during which they themselves didn’t recognize Hugh’s marriage and had continued to issue benefits as if he was single. They expect Hugh – who now must survive on a monthly benefit of $308.10 per month—to come up with $6,205 to correct the overpayment from SSA’s discriminatory mistake. Hugh and Orion already struggle to make ends meet as is, making an unexpected $6,205 bill an extreme financial hardship. As an alternative to paying back his alleged debt in an impossible lump sum, the SSA told Hugh he could repay in monthly increments of $20, which would put him in the clear just in time for his 81st birthday.
Hugh had done his due diligence in reporting his marriage to the SSA and relies on every SSI dollar for monthly expenses. This is not only unfair, it’s unlawful. The SSA’s own policy regarding overpayment is that it can be waived if a recipient was overpaid through no fault of their own and the repayment would be unfair.
To stop this discrimination against aged SSI recipients and those with disabilities simply because of who they are married to—we filed a class action against the SSA. The lawsuit we filed, along with our partners at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) and Foley Hoag LLP, seeks to end SSA’s pursuit of overpayments due to its delayed recognition of same-sex marriages. The class action is on behalf of Hugh, Kelly Richardson-Wright—a plaintiff in Massachusetts, and hundreds of other SSI recipients married to someone of the same sex in or before June 2013. It’s really pretty simple: “The victims of that discrimination should not be the ones to pay for the agency’s mistake,” said Gerald McIntyre, one of the Justice in Aging attorneys on the case. The complaint, filed March 10, can be viewed here. or at GLAD.org.