June 22, 2020 | By Kathryn Joyce, The New Republic
In 1954, Kevin Green got his Social Security card and started picking cotton for $3 per hundred pounds in a tiny agricultural town in California’s Central Valley. He was five years old. One of seven children, he used the money to buy school supplies. He kept working—and paying into the Social Security system—through high school, then beyond: for Douglas Aircraft, at a telephone company warehouse, as a messenger at the UCLA hospital. In 1969, he was drafted, and spent four years flying in and out of Vietnam as a cargo plane loadmaster, balancing the weight of tanks and helicopters going in and cadavers coming out. After his discharge, he worked truck routes around the Bay Area for nearly 25 years, delivering beer, then paper products. One afternoon in 1997, while loading a hand truck for his last stop of the day, he stepped onto an uneven curb and fell, injuring his neck and back and shattering his ankle and foot.
In the years afterward, Green underwent repeated surgeries, watched his marriage fall apart amid the stresses of disability and unemployment, and endured regular epidural drips and shots to mitigate the nerve damage that kept him up at night and made his feet burn. But he made a new life. He found an apartment in Oakland; he joined a Bible study group. He was able to live, very modestly, on the $1,269 he received each month from Social Security Disability Insurance—money he stretched to cover his rent, utilities, car insurance, food, and medicine.
One Friday in August 2017, Green, who is now a soft-spoken 70-year-old, received a letter from the Social Security Administration stating that the next month’s check would be withheld because of an alleged overpayment. The notice—only the second communication he’d received from SSA in a decade—didn’t explain the
or when it was made. On Monday, Green rushed to the local SSA office to ask what it all meant. Clerks sent him to another branch, where he was told he’d been overpaid by $12,000 some 10 or 12 years before. If he wanted copies of the records proving it, he’d have to pay for them to be mailed; if he didn’t want his check withheld, he’d have to apply for a waiver. “Other than that,” he said, “they wouldn’t tell me anything.”
Green, who asked that his real name not be used for fear of retaliation, was bewildered. Ever since he’d qualified for disability insurance—the type of Social Security support dependent on your prior work contributions—he’d been vigilant about following the rules. In his community, people knew all too well that when a mistake happens, it’s your fault, even when it’s not. After his accident, he’d paid a lawyer to ensure that his disability application was done correctly. When his son graduated from high school, he immediately told SSA so it would stop sending the additional payments that minor children of parents on disability may qualify for. He kept every piece of mail the agency sent, and forwarded letters from workers’ comp to the SSA so it could offset his payments accordingly. Even when his workers’ comp subsidy was later reduced, entitling him to higher disability payments, he didn’t ask for the money, figuring he’d rather SSA owe him than the other way around. “I swear, this is the main thing I kept straight,” he told me. “I knew what could happen, and it happened anyway.”
For four months, Green tried to make sense of the claim on his own, but everything he learned seemed incomplete or contradictory. The alleged overpayment might have concerned workers’ comp, or income his ex-wife made after she and Green separated, or the payments to their son. No one could say for sure. What was certain was how losing the check would affect him. It was easy to imagine the calamitous spiral of events—eviction, bankruptcy, destitution—that could land him among the Bay Area’s 30,000-person homeless population, sleeping in his car.
After Green reluctantly applied for a waiver, pending further investigation, SSA agreed to dock his check by only $200 a month, instead of withholding it all. But the shortfall still left him reliant on a credit card to meet his basic needs. Over the next two years, he amassed thousands of dollars in credit-card debt he stood little chance of repaying. And almost every month, he received more form letters warning him anew that his benefits were about to be cut.
People tend to know about such Social Security problems only if they’ve happened to a family member, said Steven Weiss, an attorney at Bay Area Legal Aid. Weiss has seen SSA cut people off because they didn’t report “assets” like an old, out-of-commission car, or because a family member had once helped them through a crisis—assistance the SSA declared was disqualifying because they had misidentified it as an ongoing source of support. In one case, Weiss represented an elderly immigrant from Afghanistan kicked from the rolls after SSA asked him leading questions about property owned by relatives overseas. When the man admitted his family had once owned a house in Kabul, the agency, without inquiring whether it was still in their possession, assigned a value to it and found him ineligible.
Usually people on the other end of overpayment or overissuance claims don’t have attorneys to help, said Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate at the Western Center on Law & Poverty. “That’s really appalling, because a public benefits fraud case can be enough to kick you out of the country if you’re an immigrant; they could go to jail; they could lose their kids if they go into Child Protective Services.” When people have lawyers, by contrast, “one out of two times” they can prove there was no overpayment at all.
The network of interlacing injustices is so vast that it becomes difficult to comprehend as a whole. People may be aware that consumer debt collection is predaceous and corrupt; that low-income people face terrible odds in family or housing court; that anyone hoping to receive government benefits depends on the whim, and competence, of bureaucrats seeking to cut costs. But they don’t connect these effects back to a root cause: Without representation and adequate information, poor people don’t have access to the rights and benefits they’re due.
In early 2018, after trying for months to handle the SSA’s overpayment claim on his own, Kevin Green was referred to Bay Area Legal Aid, where he became a client of Steven Weiss. Although Green had previously been talked into accepting a $200 deduction from each month’s check, with Weiss’s help, he composed a budget to demonstrate that withholding any more than $40 left him unable to meet his basic needs, violating SSA policy that overpayment recovery shouldn’t contravene the purpose of Social Security or principles of “equity and good conscience.” SSA officials agreed to the reduced withholding, but still continued to send Green contradictory notices. Sometimes they reverted to their threats to withhold $200, or even the full $1,269 check. In one confounding letter, they told him they’d take $40 and the total amount. Green would call Weiss out of breath, saying, “‘These people are trying to kill me.’ That’s what it felt like to him,” Weiss recalled. “They’re just taking his money and he doesn’t know why.”
Weiss and his colleagues didn’t know why either—until this February, two and a half years after SSA sent Green his first letter. Bay Area Legal Aid had previously requested an administrative hearing, and SSA was finally compelled to send Green’s records, which revealed that, while SSA had offset Green’s direct payments when he informed it of his workers’ comp, the agency had incorrectly offset the payments sent to his son. Years later, in 2016, SSA tried to contact the son, but sent the notice to an old address, and the letter was returned undelivered. Without trying to make contact again, the agency had apparently decided to hold Green liable without informing him—violating, at the least, its duty for timely notification.
In late February, Weiss’s colleague Raegan Joern accompanied Green to administrative court, and laid out his case: Green had done everything he was supposed to, had never received any explanation of the overpayment, and, in any case, couldn’t repay it. Joern requested her client be granted a full waiver, and that the funds SSA had taken be returned.
The judge appeared sympathetic, and Green and Joern left feeling hopeful. They had to wait, however, to receive a decision, as written opinions from administrative courts can sometimes take close to a year to arrive.
If you or someone you know is unable to work due to a medical condition, please contact us for a free evaluation of your claim. Premier Disability Services, LLC represents clients at any stage of the administrative process. We assist individuals who are filing initial applications, or with claims pending at the initial, reconsideration, or hearing levels. Best of all, we do our work with no up-front fee, and are paid only if we win your case.
By: Joyce Trudeau of Premier Disability Services, LLC®