Oregon and the Oregon Law Center have filed a class action lawsuit against the
Social Security Administration, alleging that its handling of a troubled
nonprofit organization is illegal and imperils the financial stability of
hundreds of disabled individuals.
On March 6, the
Social Security Administration Office of the Inspector General served a federal
search warrant on Safety Net of Oregon, a nonprofit that manages the disability
benefits for individuals unable to handle their finances, to investigate
charges that $600,000 of beneficiary funds were unaccounted for. The Social
Security Administration (SSA) also decertified Safety Net, leaving about 1,000
people, many with severe disabilities to find a new organization or individual
(a “payee”) to manage their benefits by March 21. Those unable to find a new
payee would be unable to access their money beginning April 1.
Filed March 24 in
U.S. federal court, the complaint states that SSA's efforts to alert Safety
Net's clients through phone calls and letters that they would need a new payee
have fallen short. According to the complaint, only 300 of Safety Net's clients
have found new payees. Within a week, the remaining 700 will be unable to
access their funds for rent, utilities, medical costs and other necessities.
The complaint also notes that many affected people, because of their
disability, will have a difficult time navigating SSA's bureaucracy.
The complaint was
filed on behalf of six of Safety Net's clients, which are described as homeless
or near homeless, as well as homeless outreach organization JOIN. The complaint
states that these individuals either didn't get notice from Social Security
that they would need to find a new payee or have been unable to find one. With
their benefits about to be suspended, some individuals face the imminent possibility
that they will be unable to make rent and will be evicted, according to the
complaint. One of them will be unable to make payments he owes as part of his
probation and may go back to jail.
“There’s a lot of confusion and concern,” says JOIN
Executive Director Marc Jolin. “People not really understanding what’s
happening and why, and what it’s going to mean to transfer their payee
representative and what happens if they can’t. We’ve got people coming into
JOIN asking those questions pretty regularly, not really understanding what’s
happening and looking for help trying to navigate the situation.”
The complaint states
that JOIN would have its finances and resources strained as it devotes more aid
to former Safety Net clients. JOIN's contractual obligation with the City of
Portland to move a certain number of homeless individuals off the street could
also be harmed by Safety Net's closure, the complaint states.
SSA has refused to
reappoint a new payee for Safety Net's clients, according to the complaint, and
has done no outreach to local social services agencies. “Instead, SSA is
requiring individuals to go to a local SSA office to apply for a new payee.
This is a significant barrier for many SSA clients.”
are incapable of going to an SSA office,” the complaint states. “Homeless
individuals served by JOIN do not understand that their benefits will be
delayed, do not want to go to a government office, and their outreach workers
must spend an enormous amount of time supporting and coaching them before they
are willing to go to SSA.”
When SSA's regional
manager, Cory Burgess, was informed that many former Safety Net clients suffer
from paranoia and are reluctant to step foot in a government office he is
quoted in the complaint as saying, “Well, they'll be in next month when they
don't get their money.”
“We're simply saying
please appoint a new one,” says Monica Goracke, managing attorney at the Oregon
Law Center, which filed the complaint. “Don't interrupt peoples' benefits.”
The SSA's handling
of Safety Net is illegal, according to the complaint, which cites laws stating
that when a payee is shutdown it must assign an alternative payee rather than
disrupt payments. The complaint also states that SSA can only suspend payments
when no other suitable payee can be found and points out that Share and Care
House, another nonprofit, has offered to take Safety Net's old clients. The
complaint also argues that Safety Net clients were never given a chance to
appeal their suspension of benefits as required by law.
The complaint asks
that SSA be directed to find new payees for all of Safety Net's clients who haven't
found one. It also asks that a restraining order be placed on SSA to prevent it
from suspending the benefits of Safety Net clients until they are given
adequate notice is given to them of their right to appeal the decision.
“They’re relying on those fund to pay rent, utilities and
transportation,” Jolin says. So having an interruption even a few weeks can be
Multnomah County Chair Marissa Madrigal has sharply criticized the
Social Security Administration's handling of a troubled nonprofit
organization that manages the federal disability benefits of 1,000
individuals who may soon find themselves without a way to pay for rent,
groceries and other necessities.