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Marriage Equality

Same-Sex Couples Sue Social Security Over Benefit Snafu

Same-Sex Couples Sue Social Security Over Benefit Snafu


The SSA overpaid some benefit recipients because it didn't recognize their marriages, and now it wants the money back -- but recipients say they shouldn't pay for the agency's mistake.

The Social Security Administration overpaid some supplemental security income recipients because it didn't recognize their same-sex marriages when it legally should have -- and now it wants the money back, but recipients say they shouldn't be held responsible for the agency's error.

Civil rights groups and private attorneys today filed a class action lawsuit against the SSA on behalf of SSI recipients who married someone of the same sex in or before June 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which kept the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. But the Social Security Administration "has only recently begun to treat married couples of the same sex as married for purposes of calculating their SSI benefits and eligibility," says the complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

SSI benefits are available to people with low incomes who are blind, disabled, or over age 65. Payments are higher for single people than for those who are married, so delay in recognizing the plaintiffs' marriages caused what the SSA now says is overpayment, and it is demanding that recipients pay back amounts in the thousands of dollars, which many of them can not afford, according to the suit.

"Basically Social Security kept making SSI payments after the fall of DOMA without considering the marriages of same-sex couples, even when a recipient notified SSI of the marriage," said Vickie Henry, senior staff attorney for Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, in a press release. "Now, 18 months later, SSA, to remedy its own unconstitutional conduct, is going after people who are both poor and aged or disabled and demanding thousands of dollars from them. That's not fair, and it's not right."

Plaintiff Hugh Held of Los Angeles, the press release notes, has been receiving SSI on the basis of disability since 2008. He has also been married to Orion Masters since then. Three times since the DOMA decision, he asked workers at his local Social Security office how that might affect his benefits, and he never received a definitive answer. Then in June of last year, his monthly benefit was reduced to $308.10 from $877.40, with no explanation. He then received a bill for overpayment of $6,205. It was not until three months later, in September, that he received an explanation for the changes.

Another plaintiff, Kelly Richardson-Wright of Athol, Mass., is a former massage therapist who told the SSA she was married when she applied for SSI due to health problems in 2012. Her wife of seven years, Kena Richardson-Wright, works as a hairstylist for minimum wage. "To recover the $4,000 SSA says that Kelly owes them, Social Security has started withholding money from her monthly check, resulting in the repossession of the couple's car, and the risk that they will lose their housing," the press release states. "Kelly was hospitalized with a stress-related illness as a result of the extreme financial strain."

Justice in Aging, a national nonprofit organization that fights poverty among seniors, filed the suit along with GLAD and the law firm of Foley Hoag LLP. The suit seeks an end to collections of overpayments by the SSA, plus reimbursement for costs associated with the suit and any other relief the court finds appropriate.

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