The Washington Posts reports that the Social Security Administration has agreed to pay more than $500 million in back benefits to more than 80,000 recipients whose benefits were unfairly denied after they were flagged by a federal computer program designed to catch serious criminals. At issue is a 1996 law, which contained language later nicknamed the ‘fleeing felon’ provision, that said fugitives were ineligible to receive federal benefits. As part of its enforcement, the administration began searching computer databases to weed out people who were collecting benefits and had outstanding warrants. The searches captured dozens of criminals, including some wanted for homicide, but they also ensnared countless elderly and disabled people accused of relatively minor offenses such as shoplifting or writing bad checks and in some cases, the victims simply shared a name and a birth date with an offender.
The lead plaintiff in the class-action suit, Rosa Martinez, 52, of Redwood City, Calif., was cut off from her $870 monthly disability benefit check in January 2008 because the system had flagged an outstanding drug warrant in 1980 for a different Rosa Martinez from Miami. Officials said it is difficult to estimate how many social security recipients might be affected by the agreement but said the number is fewer than 1 percent nationally. ‘What’s remarkable about this case is the sheer number of individuals who were unfairly denied benefits and the size of the financial settlement they will receive,’ said David H. Fry of Munger, Tolles & Olson, one of the pro bono attorneys who represented victims.