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Issue Alert - 04-07-15

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Date:

Jul 15, 2004

Issue Summary:

Recent changes in social security law may result in automatically canceled benefits for recipients who are considered "fugitive felons" - but recent court decisions have shown that classification to be rebuttable.

Persons Affected:

Any SSI or Social Security recipient who has an outstanding felony warrant in their name - regardless of their knowledge of the existence of the warrant.


Background

Social Security

What's Happening?

Recent District Court decisions from Northern Michigan and California, however, may have created a precedent to counter a problematic ambiguity of recent social security and SSI laws for “fugitive felons,” showing that as long as the claimant has had no knowledge of the outstanding warrant or can prove physical or financial inability to confront the warrant, the claimant cannot be considered to be “fleeing.” A District Court case from Northern Michigan challenged a denial of SSI benefits by arguing a lack of intent to avoid prosecution. In Blakey v. Commissioner of Social Security (2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3984 (MI W. Dist., 2004)), the Plaintiff, an SSI claimant, sought judicial review of a final decision of the Appeals Council terminating his SSI benefits upon its determination that he was a “fleeing felon.” Because Blakely failed to return to Montana to face charges, and the warrant remained outstanding, the Appeals Council determined that he was avoiding prosecution for a felony within the meaning of the applicable statute. Blakely did not leave Montana aware of the arrest warrant nor did he attempt to conceal himself in any manner. He was willing to be voluntarily extradited, but was physically disabled and financially unable to return to Montana on his own. Blakely’s counsel argued that proper interpretation of the term “fleeing” implied an intentional act, and that Blakely showed no intent to escape the consequences of his altercation. The case was remanded with instructions to reinstate the benefits. Language from the court in Blakely directly addresses the issue of fugitive felons ignorant of warrants against them:“This Court does find that a meaningful distinction exists between one who has left but declines to return and one who has left a state, without any knowledge of outstanding charges, volunteers to return but is physically and financially unable to do so without the government's help.”

What Should Advocates Do?

In light of the Blakely decision and the ALJ cases from California and Georgia, a denial of SSI or social security benefits on the basis of “fugitive felon” status can be successfully challenged by showing ignorance of the warrant and/or impossibility to vacate the warrant or face prosecution. Obstacles advocates may face in these cases are lean amount of supportive precedent decisions and the SSA’s amorphous definition of “fugitive felon” for the purposes of denying benefits. Further successful arguments using the logic in Blakely and lobbying SSA for a clearer operating definition of “fugitive felon” or a grace period in which a determination of knowledge or possibility to confront the warrant can be made would alleviate the temporary or permanent denial of benefits.

What Should Clients Do?

If you have an outstanding warrant and are receiving SSI or Social Security benefits:Contact legal services immediately. Note that it’s possible you still may be charged with overpayment fees for the time the warrant was active and you received benefits. You can locate the "free" legal services or legal aid office that serves your county on the Michigan LawHelp web site (http://MI.LawHelp.org) or look in the yellow pages under "attorneys" or call the toll-free lawyer referral number, (800) 968-0738.If you receive a letter canceling your benefits as a result of an outstanding warrant:Recent district court decisions in Michigan and Maine have shown that physical or financial inability to confront the warrant may allow for reinstatement of benefits and cancellation of overpayment fees. It’s important, however, to confront any felony warrant immediately upon learning of it, and if that is not possible because of physical/mental disability or financial impossibility, to be able to prove those special circumstances on paper so they can be used in court.

Finding Help

Most legal aid and legal services office handle these types of cases, and they do not charge a fee. You can locate the "free" legal services or legal aid office that serves your county on the Michigan LawHelp web site (http://MI.LawHelp.org) or look in the yellow pages under "attorneys" or call the toll-free lawyer referral number, (800) 968-0738.