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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 13, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 11
Social Security Administration sued over marriage recognition
Section One
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Social Security Administration sued over marriage recognition

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

GLAD (Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders) and Justice in Aging filed a class action lawsuit March 10, demanding that the Social Security Administration (SSA) stop trying to collect overpayments to same-sex couples.

The groups' clients, Hugh Held and Orion Masters, say they are victims of SSA's incompetence and inertia in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's Windsor decision striking down DOMA. Since the suit is filed as a class action, any same-sex couples who are in a similar position may join the suit.

Held and Masters were married in California in 2008, in the brief window of opportunity between the California Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage and the passage of Prop 8, re-banning it.

At the time, Held was on SSI (Supplemental Security Income), a federal program that helps support disabled persons. Since DOMA was then in effect, SSA did not recognize their marriage. Had it done so, Held's SSI benefits would have been reduced, because his total household income would have included Masters' wages.

When the U.S. Supreme Court struck DOMA down in the 2013 Windsor decision, Held asked his local SSA branch office if his marriage to Masters would mean a reduction in his benefits. Although President Obama immediately directed federal agencies to determine what effect Windsor would have on their operations, SSA was slow to decide how it would deal with newly-legal same-sex marriages. In Held's case, the agency did nothing for almost a year.

Finally, in June 2014, they reduced Held's monthly benefit from $877.40 to $308.10.

Held and Masters expected the change, and say they accepted it, but they could not accept the $6,205 bill that SSA also sent Held. That amount, SSA claimed, was what they had overpaid Held between the time of the Windsor decision and June 2014.

The lawsuit claims that 'SSA should have recognized Plaintiffs' marriages immediately' after the Windsor decision. 'Yet it failed to do so.'

Then, once SSA finally did begin treating married same-sex couples as married, it asked for overpayments that resulted from their own failure to recognize the marriages in the first place.

As GLAD and Justice in Aging's lawyers write, 'SSI recipients are now being targeted by SSA for recoupment of overpayments caused by the government's own unlawful actions.'

'Unfortunately for married same-sex couples in marriage recognition states, SSA was completely unprepared to implement policies required of it by law after DOMA was struck down,' Gerald McIntyre, directing attorney for Justice in Aging, said in a statement. 'The victims of that discrimination should not be the ones to pay for the agency's mistake.'

Lawyers for Held and Masters argue that the Social Security Act itself makes it illegal for SSA to seek repayment in this circumstance.

'The Social Security Act provisions authorizing overpayment recoupment expressly require SSA to waive recovery of SSI overpayments if (1) the overpaid SSI recipients were not at fault for the overpayment and (2) recoupment would either a) be against equity and good conscience or b) defeat the purposes of the statute,' the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit argues that overpayments are not the same-sex spouses' fault because the Social Security Administration failed to implement the constitutional ruling in Windsor, meeting the first requirement, and it would be 'against equity and good conscience' to order repayment, meeting the second.

Specifically, it says that 'it is unfair, inequitable, and unconscionable for SSA to demand overpayment from a group of individuals who not only are destitute, but who have been discriminated against by SSA, and then were overpaid by the government's unjustified perpetuation of that very discrimination long after it was held unlawful by the Supreme Court.'

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