SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The Social Security Administration will have to face claims it failed to make work reviews accessible to the mentally and developmentally disabled, a federal judge ruled.
U.S. District Judge Edward Chen refused to dismiss two related cases accusing the SSA of violating Title II and Title XVI of the Rehabilitation Act, finding allegations of emotional distress in the review process sufficient to constitute an injury for purposes of standing.
Work reviews take place after a person has been deemed disabled and granted benefits and are conducted to ensure beneficiaries are not earning above a certain income level, in which case benefits can be terminated, suspended or reduced.
Terrence Davis and "John Doe" claim the SSA does not train claims representatives how to conduct work reviews when the person under review has mental or development disabilities or how to communicate with such people and that the SSA failed to modify its forms to make them understandable to people with such disabilities.
In the ruling, Chen noted that other courts have found that emotional distress can constitute an injury in fact for purposes of standing, contrary to what the SSA argued. The SSA also did not take into account that plaintiffs emotional distress "arises from their claimed inability to meaningfully participate in the review process. Thus, ultimately, Plaintiff's primary injury in fact is the alleged discrimination suffered. Such discrimination can clearly be an injury in fact for purposes of standing."
The court rejected the SSA's contention that there is no injury unless plaintiffs suffer a denial of benefits as "meritless," noting that if "plaintiffs are subject to discrimination in the process and denied equal access as required under the Rehabilitation Act, they have standing to assert a Rehabilitation Act claim."
The court also found that the SSA's offer to appoint employees to assist plaintiffs to be in essence a form of temporary or preliminary relief that does not make moot the permanent relief sought by plaintiffs.
Chen found the SSA's argument that the federal court lacks jurisdiction because its depositions showed plaintiffs claims were really about benefits unpersuasive, ruling that "the fact that plaintiffs did not disavow caring about their benefits does not mean that they do not also care about being able to participate in the SSA work review process. This is because maintaining benefits is intimately tied to participation in the SSA work review process; i.e. without being able to fully participate in the process (e.g. understand the SSA notices), plaintiffs' benefits are potentially jeopardized."
Chen also noted that plaintiffs' disabilities affected their ability to be deposed.
Davis and Doe also might have standing to seek systemic relief. The 9th Circuit has indicated that, "where there is a system-wide injury because of a policy or practice that pervades an institution, than widespread relief is justified to remedy that injury," according to the ruling.
Ultimately Chen deferred ruling on the issue, finding that the merits phase of the case was not yet ready for adjudication.
Davis originally filed his case in 2006 as a class action but Judge Marilyn Hall Patel rejected his motion for class certification while allowing him to re-file. Davis instead chose to file an amended individual complaint without class allegations. Doe filed his individual complaint a few months later also without class allegations.
Plaintiffs then filed a motion for summary judgment pursuant to request by Patel, who was concerned they would ask for expansive relief that went beyond their claims.
After a hearing in 2010 the parties stipulated to a schedule under which the court would first hear the SSA's motion for summary judgment on standing and jurisdiction, after which the parties would turn back to plaintiffs' motion, which would be considered only after additional discovery and briefing.
The SSA filed the current motion for summary judgment in 2011, and shortly thereafter filed a motion to dismiss or stay because it had begun a self-evaluation of its policies.
The case was re-assigned to Chen, who denied the motion to dismiss but granted a limited stay during which he ordered the SSA to produce documents to plaintiffs so they could determine whether the self-evaluation would address their concerns.
Ultimately the court decided to deal with the SSA's motion for summary judgment despite of the stay.
In addition to denying the SSA's motion, Chen granted plaintiffs motion to file certain supporting documents under seal as long as they file redacted versions for public viewing. Finally, the court ordered the parties to meet and discuss plaintiffs' proposal that the court entertain their motion for summary judgment without further discovery or briefing.
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