New York— During the pandemic tens of thousands of people who rely on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to survive have experienced harmful and sometimes life-threatening disruptions in their benefits. Many people’s benefits were reduced through no fault of their own. Instead, in addition to the many other barriers that the pandemic created, the Social Security Administration (SSA) stopped processing certain paperwork and closed all of its offices, making it impossible for many to provide information to, or effectively challenge the decisions of, the agency. Yesterday, the New York Legal Assistance Group, Justice in Aging, and the law firm Arnold & Porter filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of five SSI recipients challenging these unlawful practices.
The SSI program is administered by the Social Security Administration and provides subsistence level cash benefits to older adults and people with disabilities to meet their most basic needs. Under the best of circumstances, SSI benefits are extremely difficult to get and retain and very easy to lose, due to the program’s complicated rules and strict eligibility standards.
“We have seen dozens of clients harmed by Social Security’s unfair, ill-considered, and arbitrary pandemic policies,” said Michelle Spadafore, who directs the Disability Advocacy Project at the New York Legal Assistance Group. “For one of our clients, SSA found her ineligible for needed SSI benefits because it wrongfully counted money she received to care for an adopted child with disabilities. Because of the pandemic—and because SSA’s offices remain closed to this day—she could not get this decision reversed, despite her best efforts.”
In March 2020, SSA closed its field offices in response to the COVID 19 pandemic and stopped cutting off benefits for SSI recipients who were unable to report changes to their finances due to the office closures. Beginning in September 2020, the agency started to again send notices to thousands of people that their benefits would be reduced. People who receive SSI are by definition extremely poor, and are either elderly or have a disability or both. Many are women and people of color. In many states, eligibility for SSI is also tied to eligibility for Medicaid, so many people who lost their SSI benefits during the pandemic risked losing access to health care. The effect of both the office closures and SSA’s own pandemic practices caused severe economic harm and intense stress for those who were already suffering the most during the pandemic.
“Our clients are between a rock and a hard place – with Social Security offices closed, many banks and public offices closed, they had no way to secure the paperwork SSA demands and deliver that paperwork to SSA. They constitute the highest risk population for COVID-19 and many wisely stayed home to ride out the pandemic. They should not be placed at greater risk by SSA’s poorly orchestrated policies.” said Regan Bailey, Litigation Director at Justice in Aging.
The Social Security Administration issued an interim rule in August 2020, due to the national emergency, that was intended to create an easier process to “waive”—forgive—certain penalties SSA imposed related to ineligibility during the early months of the pandemic. However, the agency didn’t effectively inform people that the simplified waiver process even existed, and the waiver only covered the first six months of this ongoing pandemic—before the deadly winter wave of COVID-19 cases. If an individual was lucky enough to learn of the existence of the simplified waiver, their problems didn’t end there. For example, the individuals named in the lawsuit faced problems like being told to contact a specific person at a specific phone number, yet not being able to reach anyone or leave a message; and being told to make an appointment to request the simplified waiver, only to be told that there are actually no appointments available.
“This lawsuit aims to address the concerns of vulnerable citizens who rely on benefits from the Social Security Administration in order to survive,” said Sheila S. Boston, partner at Arnold & Porter. “Using the rule of law, we will hold Social Security accountable for amending its pandemic response to ensure that thousands of impacted individuals receive their benefits and information related to those benefits in a timely manner.”
Plaintiffs are asking the Social Security Administration to fix the Agency’s new simplified waiver process, so that it applies to everyone impacted by the National Emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic; and that the Court declare the Agency’s restrictions on time frames and other limiting factors arbitrary and capricious given the ongoing and continuing nature of the pandemic. Plaintiffs also want SSA to stop imposing penalties on SSI recipients while the National Emergency persists and recipients have no effective way to engage with the agency.
Justice in Aging, the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) and pro bono firm Arnold and Porter filed this lawsuit in the Eastern District of New York on behalf of a class of current and future SSI recipients who were assessed an overpayment debt since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. Attorneys can make themselves and a client available to interview. Reporters can contact Jay Brandon at firstname.lastname@example.org, Vanessa Barrington at Justice in Aging email@example.com or Issara Baumann Issara.Baumann@arnoldporter.com to be connected.