Duane Kimmel was stuck: His Social Security disability payments had been cut off because of a decade-old warrant, but authorities had no interest in arresting him so that he could clear the warrant and restore his benefits.
As a result, Kimmel lost his only source of income for five years and became homeless. He lived in the woods in Doraville and in Atlanta shelters. An old back injury prevented him from working, and he didn’t seem to have any recourse.
But his situation is about to change, following a recent federal case that mandates back payments to Kimmel and a 140,000-person class, said Rachel Lazarus of Gwinnett Legal Aid, who assisted Kimmel.
Members of the class—people whose Social Security payments were stopped or on appeal as of Oct. 24, 2006, because of outstanding parole or probation violation warrants—will receive payment notifications by the end of the year, with lump-sum amounts distributed afterward. Kimmel stands to receive about $50,000 for the time in which the government denied him benefits, Lazarus said.
“Social Security is basically giving people back the money they should have had, but there won’t be compensation for the fact that this guy was homeless for five years,” Lazarus said.
A 2010 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, Clark v. Astrue, ruled that the existence of a parole or probation violation warrant wasn’t equivalent to a determination that an individual was actually violating his probation or parole. Potential Social Security beneficiaries are ineligible for payments if they are fleeing to avoid prosecution or are violating a condition of probation or parole.
On remand, U.S. District Judge Sidney Stein in the Southern District of New York issued an order in April restoring benefits to members of the class.
Kimmel, a 62-year-old Marine Corps veteran, was able to clear his outstanding warrant with the help of Lazarus and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
He said the process wasn’t easy because police in Michigan, where the warrant was pending, didn’t want to arrest him when he tried to turn himself in.
“The jail wouldn’t take me. The police officers told me to go back to the Greyhound bus and go back home,” Kimmel said.
Kimmel had traveled to Oakland County, Mich., to take care of the warrant. He said the VA paid for the bus ticket because he couldn’t afford it.
The warrant had been pending since 2000 because Kimmel failed to pay $850 in probation fees after he moved to Florida at the time, he and Lazarus said. Kimmel was on probation for a marijuana possession offense, but he didn’t know the warrant existed until his Social Security payments stopped in 2005.
When police wouldn’t take him away, Kimmel called Lazarus for help.
“I told them, ‘You will arrest this man. You have no idea what he’s done to get to you,’” Lazarus said.
That discussion led to an agreement with Michigan law enforcement that they would arrest him in order to clear up his paperwork problem, Lazarus said. He was entered into a 60-day drug rehab program for his probation violation, and when he returned to Georgia, he was able to have his Social Security benefits reinstated in 2010.
His Social Security payments amount to $937 per month, which is enough for him to rent an apartment in Lawrenceville and get back on his feet. The pending payout for the time when his benefits were denied—from 2005 to 2010—will help him support himself for years to come.
“I’m very upset about how it was done. There are people living on Social Security disability, on a fixed income. If they don’t cut your check, you’re done,” Kimmel said. “I’m quite disappointed, but I thank the U.S. government that we do have that money coming in. A lot of countries aren’t like that.”
Kimmel’s warrant dilemma wasn’t uncommon among members of the class covered by the Clark v. Astrue decision, said Gerald McIntyre, a Los Angeles-based attorney for the National Senior Citizens Law Center who handled the case.
“He’s not an outlier. That’s a common fact pattern. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a similar story,” McIntyre said.
A beneficiary’s failure to pay fees was a typical reason for warrants to be issued and for the Social Security Administration to deny benefits, he said. He estimated that pending back payments may total $1 billion.
“This is the outcome we wanted,” he said.
“They should be fully compensated in the sense of receiving the dollars they would have otherwise received,” but he noted, “You can’t sue the federal government for damages.”
The Social Security Administration is preparing to implement relief for class members and expects to begin mailing informational notices next month, said spokeswoman Kia Green Anderson.
Payments are due to class members in the Social Security group by the third quarter of next year, and those in the Social Security Supplemental Security Income program will get paid by the first quarter of 2014, McIntyre said.
The Second Circuit case is Clark v. Astrue, 1:06-CV-15521.