Padro et al v. Astrue
On May 3, 2013, Chief U.S. District Court Judge Carol B. Amon of the Eastern District of New York granted class certification and preliminary approval of a major settlement in a class action lawsuit filed by MHP against the Social Security Administration (SSA) for systematic, generalized bias against disabled claimants by five administrative law judges (“ALJs”) in SSA’s Queens Office of Disability Adjudication & Review (“QODAR”). The proposed settlement provides relief to thousands of disabled New Yorkers, including new hearings and a combination of other reforms to protect due process rights and ensure the provision of fair and full hearings in future claims. The Court will hold a fairness hearing on July 24, 2013 before ruling on final approval of the settlement.
Under the settlement, approximately 4,000 individual denied disability benefits will be entitled to receive new hearings. The settlement also provides prospective relief to those denied in the future. For the 30-month period after the court approves the settlement, any claimant denied benefits by these five ALJs will automatically have their claim reviewed by the special review unit, and, if granted a new hearing, will have a right to a new hearing before other ALJs. The settlement is the largest of its kind and provides unprecedented relief.
The lawsuit, filed on April 12, 2011 in the Eastern District of New York, detailed a pattern of glaring and intentional legal and procedural errors and the persistent denial of claims. Reviewing courts often offered scathing assessments of the ALJs’ unprofessional conduct, calling their opinions, “deficient,” “incoherent,” “plucked from thin air,” “arbitrary,” and “illogical.” Reviewing courts further decried ALJ conduct that was “particularly egregious,” “exhibit[ing] bias,” showing “inappropriate hostility” toward benefit claimants, peppering claimants with “combative questioning,” showing “serious negligence,” and “trivializing” claimant impairments. This conduct in Queens had gone on for years before the lawsuit.
At the time the lawsuit was filed, QODAR had the third highest benefits-denial rate in the country and the highest benefits-denial rate in the New York region, based on data covering decisions from 2005 to 2008. Almost all of the ALJs named in the suit rank high on the national list of top claims deniers. On appeal, the Queens ODAR suffers one of the highest remand rates in the country.
The suit was filed in conjunction with pro bono counsel at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher.
Clark v. Astrue
On April 13, 2012, U.S. District Court Judge Sidney H. Stein ordered the Social Security Administration (SSA) to restore Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits to as many as 140,000 Americans. The benefits in question date back to October 2006 and may total $1 billion.
The order is the culmination of more than five years of litigation in Clark v. Astrue, a case brought by MHP against SSA challenging its use of a crude computer-matching system to suspend or deny the benefits of people who appear to have failed to comply with probation or parole. SSA completed no actual verification of these results before summarily suspending desperately needed benefits. People with psychiatric disabilities were especially vulnerable to this policy because they have a harder time dealing with SSA bureaucracy and are more likely to have had police interactions.
MHP filed the original complaint in 2006 in the Southern District of New York. In March 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that it is unlawful for SSA to suspend a recipient's benefits based solely on an outstanding warrant for a probation or parole violation, and that an outstanding warrant is not sufficient evidence that an SSA beneficiary is in fact violating probation or parole. In March 2011, Judge Stein certified a nationwide class of people affected by SSA’s unlawful actions. The class includes individuals whose benefits were suspended or denied based solely on the existence of a warrant for an alleged violation of probation or parole but is limited to individuals 1) who were deprived of these benefits on or after October 24, 2006; 2) who had an initial overpayment determination made on or after October 24, 2006; or 3) who had an administrative appeal pending on or after October 24, 2006.
The April 13th Order requires SSA to discontinue its practice of suspending or denying benefits in this manner and to reinstate all previously suspended benefits retroactive to the date the benefits were suspended. SSA plans to complete the restoration of benefits and to reopen all claims that were denied by April 2014.
- Pro bono co-counsel: Proskauer Rose LLP
- Co-counsel: National Senior Citizens Law Center (NSCLC)
- Read the Complaint
- Read the Second Circuit Decision
- Read the Class Certification Decision
- Read the Final Order
- SSA's Implementation Plan"
- UJC Flyer
- UJC's Fact Sheet
- NSCLC's Summary of Clark Implementation Plan
Martinez v. Astrue
On September 24, 2009, U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken granted final approval of a settlement agreement reached between plaintiffs and the Social Security Administration ("SSA") in this national class action challenging SSA's policy of relying on outstanding warrant information to suspend or deny benefits.
A law passed in 1996 prohibits payment of benefits to individuals who are "fleeing to avoid prosecution" for a felony. Rather than attempting to determine whether a person is actually fleeing, SSA had been using a crude computer matching system to suspend or deny benefits based only on an outstanding warrant, resulting in the suspension of benefits of thousands of elderly, poor, and disabled Americans who are not "wanted," and in some cases may have been completely misidentified.
SSA's so-called "Fugitive Felon Program" has been held illegal in several federal cases. Indeed, due to Fowlkes v. Adamec, a case decided by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and in which UJC appeared with other organizations as amicus curiae, SSA had to suspend much of the program in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont. However, until the settlement in Martinez, SSA continued its policy in the rest of the country.
Beginning April 1, 2009, and pursuant to the settlement agreement, SSA will only suspend or deny benefits based on warrants that are issued for flight or escape. The settlement also provides relief to hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries whose benefits have been suspended or denied in the past.
Approximately 80,000 individuals suspended or denied after January 1, 2007 or who had a live, pending administrative claim as of August 11, 2008 will be reinstated and paid back benefits worth a total of at least $500 million. Within this group, recipients of Social Security disability or retirement benefits are scheduled to be reinstated retroactively by June, 2010. Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") recipients are scheduled to receive full retroactive reinstatement by December, 2010. For these class members, it will not be necessary to file a new application. The process should be automatic for OASDI recipients, but SSI recipients will have to re-establish financial eligibility.
Those suspended or denied between January 1, 2000 and December 31, 2006 will receive notice and the opportunity to be reinstated as of April 1, 2009. These individuals are scheduled to receive a notice by December 31, 2010. The proposed settlement also provides for relief of the repayment of "overpayment" of benefits assessed by SSA under this policy.
This unlawful policy has had devastating consequences on the lives of elderly, poor, and disabled individuals, many of whom rely upon Social Security benefits as their only income and, without their rightfully due benefits, have been unable to pay for rent or other basic necessities. This settlement will allow class members – many of whom have been rendered destitute, homeless, and dependent on relatives and charity – to rebuild their lives.
Representation of plaintiffs was led by National Senior Citizens Law Center and pro bono counsel Munger, Tolles & Olson, and included MHP, Disability Rights California, and Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County.
Further details regarding the implementation of this settlement will be posted to this webpage in the future. You may also call Emilia Sicilia at (646) 602-5668 for additional information.
For more information, see the links below.
Brad H. v. City of New York
The Urban Justice Center filed this class action lawsuit in 1999, challenging New York City's practice of discharging people with psychiatric disabilities from the city jails in the middle of the night with only $1.50 and two tokens, and without any psychiatric medication or referral to services. In 2003, the parties settled the case with an agreement that the City would provide the 15,000 people who receive psychiatric treatment in city jails each year with discharge planning services, including continued mental health care, case management, and assistance in accessing public benefits and housing. Unfortunately the City has failed to comply with the settlement agreement. We have asked the court to extend the settlement agreement for an additional two years and to order the City to modify its failed policies which have prevented the City from complying with its obligations.
Pro bono co-counsel: Debevoise & Plimpton
Co-counsel: New York Lawyers for the Public Interest
- Click here for the Brad H. vs. City of New York special section.
Messiah S. v. Alexander
On February 22, 2007, MHP filed a class action lawsuit, Messiah S. v. Alexander, challenging the lack of pre-release services, also known as discharge planning, for people with psychiatric disabilities being released from New York State prisons. Pre-release services are meant to help prisoners transition back into the community by connecting them to treatment, medications, housing, and public benefits. Without these supportive services, many individuals decompensate, become homeless, and eventually return to jail. We estimate that there are currently more than 6,000 individuals either awaiting release to New York City or on parole who should have received these pre-release services.
Pro bono co-counsel: Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP
Co-counsel: The Legal Aid Society
- Read the Complaint
Fowlkes v. Adamec
On December 6, 2005, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit struck down the Social Security Administration's practice of assuming that anyone with an outstanding warrant is a fugitive felon, and stated that SSA must first determine whether the person intended to flee prosecution.
Disability Advocates, Inc. v. Cuomo
In 2003, the Mental Health Project (MHP) and co-counsel filed suit to challenge the illegal warehousing of over 4,000 people with mental illness in so-called “Adult Homes” in New York City. In a 2009 landmark decision, a U.S. District Court Judge found that the state has "denied thousands of individuals with mental illness in New York City the opportunity to receive services in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs." In 2012, on a technical ground, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated that ruling. The Second Circuit held that plaintiff Disability Advocates, Inc. (DAI), did not have “standing” to bring the lawsuit. The Second Circuit acknowledged that its decision is unlikely to be the judiciary’s last word on the issue, which could end up back before U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis.
Pro Bono Co-counsel: Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP.
Co-counsel: Disability Advocates, Inc., the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, MFY Legal Services, Inc.
- Memorandum and Order Setting Forth Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law
- Read the Summary Judgment Order
- Read the Complaint
- Read the Second Circuit Decision
Harris v. Eggleston
In 2002, Mental Health Project ("MHP") lawyers discovered that the New York City Human Resources Administration ("HRA") was illegally terminating food stamps of people in desperate need, and filed this federal class action to address the problem. Despite years of warnings from the United States Department of Agriculture, HRA and the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance employed a computer program that automatically terminated the food stamps of welfare recipients who were approved for SSI (the federal benefit for people who are poor and severely disabled), despite their eligibility under the Food Stamps Act.
In 2007, working together with pro bono co-counsel at Gibson, Dunn, & Crutcher LLP and lawyers from the Urban Justice Center's Homelessness Outreach and Prevention Project, MHP won a very favorable settlement. In 2008, under the settlement, the City and State began repaying over $12 million in food stamps to tens of thousands of disabled New Yorkers just before Thanksgiving. The benefits of this class action are not merely retroactive, however. Due to Harris, roughly 6,000 additional people each year will now continue to receive food stamps when they switch from welfare to SSI.
MHP is joined in this suit with the Homelessness Outreach and Prevention Project of the UJC, with Pro bono co-counsel by Gibson, Dunn, & Crutcher LLP.
Koskinas v. Cuomo
The Mental Health Project was counsel to the class in this class action lawsuit that established what have become known as "Koskinas" rights: the right of individuals with psychiatric disabilities who are inpatients in psychiatric units in New York City hospitals to receive discharge planning prior to their release into the community. Discharge planning requires hospital staff to provide their patients with linkages to mental health services, including access to housing, benefits, medication and outpatient treatment, upon their release. Mental Health Project staff continue to enforce the rights established in Koskinas by advocating for patients in psychiatric units across New York City.
Pro bono co-counsel: Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison
Co-counsel: New York Lawyers for the Public Interest