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Ryan Clark, Joy Jordan, Raymond Giangrasso, Tony Gonzales v. Michael J. Astrue

March 18, 2011

RYAN CLARK, JOY JORDAN, RAYMOND GIANGRASSO, TONY GONZALES,
JOHNNY L.HEATHERMAN, AND MONELL WHITE, INDIVIDUALLY AND ON BEHALF OF THEMSELVES, AND ON BEHALF OF ALL THOSE SIMILARLY SITUATED, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sidney H. Stein, U.S. District Judge.

OPINION & ORDER

The Social Security recipients who brought this putative class action have established previously in this litigation that the Social Security Administration's policy of withholding benefits for individuals with an outstanding arrest warrant for a violation of probation or parole is invalid. They now move for certification of a class consisting of all individuals who, dating back to August 22, 1996, were deprived of benefits as a result that practice. The Court certifies a class that shall consist of only those individuals whose benefits were denied or suspended on or after October 29, 2006. Individuals receiving adverse benefit decisions before that date are excluded from the class because plaintiffs have not demonstrated that their claims are timely.

I.BACKGROUND

The facts of this case have been recounted in detail in decisions by this Court and the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. See Clark v. Astrue ("Clark III"), 602 F.3d 140 (2d Cir. 2010); Clark v. Astrue ("Clark II"), No. 06 Civ. 15521, 2008 WL 4387709 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 22, 2008); Clark v. Astrue ("Clark I"), No. 06 Civ. 15521, 2007 WL 737489 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 8, 2007). In a nutshell, Congress amended the Social Security Act-first in 1996, again in 2004-to prohibit the payment of Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") and OldAge, Survivor, and Disability Insurance ("OASDI") benefits to persons "violating a condition of probation or parole imposed under Federal or State law." Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, Pub. L. No. 104-193, § 202(a), 110 Stat. 2105, 2185-86 (codified at 42 U.S.C. § 1382(e)(4)(A)(ii)); Social Security Protection Act of 2004, Pub. L. No. 108-203, § 203(a)(4), 118 Stat. 493, 509 (codified at 42 U.S.C. § 402(x)(1)(A)(v)). To enforce these new exclusions, the Social Security Administration ("SSA") adopted a practice of denying or revoking benefits if an individual had an outstanding arrest warrant for a parole or probation violation. See Clark II, 2008 WL 4387709 at *1-2.

Plaintiffs brought this putative class action in late 2006 seeking (1) a declaration that the amendments to the Social Security Act did not permit the SSA to deny benefits based solely on the existence of a warrant and (2) an injunction requiring the SSA to re-adjudicate adverse determinations made on this faulty basis. (Comp. ¶ 80.) On cross-motions for summary judgment, plaintiffs argued that the SSA could not find that an individual was "violating a condition of probation or parole," 42 U.S.C. §§ 402(x)(1)(A)(v), 1382(e)(4)(A)(ii), on the basis of a warrant issued upon probable cause because the statute requires a greater evidentiary threshold than probable cause. Concluding that the reliance on warrants was consistent with the statute, this Court granted judgment for the SSA. Clark II, 2008 WL 4387709 at *11.

The Second Circuit vacated that decision on appeal. Clark III, 602 F.3d at 152. The panel reasoned that generally "when Congress provides that a fact triggers civil legal consequences, it is requiring a finding that the fact is more likely than not true." Id. at 148.

Finding no reason to deviate from this general rule, it concluded that the SSA may deny benefits only if a probation or parole violation is demonstrated by a preponderance of evidence. Id. at 147-48. Because the finding of probable cause that typically supports the issuance of a warrant does not satisfy the higher standard of a preponderance of the evidence, the Court of Appeals determined that the SSA's practice of relying exclusively on warrants to deny benefits "is contrary to the plain meaning of the [Social Security] Act." Id. at 147. The Second Circuit remanded this litigation to this Court for further proceedings. Id. at 152.

On remand, plaintiffs have now moved for certification of a class consisting of "[a]ll persons nationwide whose SSI and/or OASDI benefits were denied and/or suspended based solely on the existence of a warrant for an alleged violation of probation or parole during the period August 22, 1996 to and including such time in the future when Defendants halt their unlawful practices." (Pls.' Mem. in Supp. of Class Certification ("Pls.' Mem.") at 7.)

The SSA challenges class certification on two fronts. It argues that plaintiffs do not satisfy the prerequisites to class certification set forth in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23. It also maintains that the proposed class is overly broad.

Addressing the definition of the class first, the Court concludes that the proposed class should be left intact with the exception of its temporal scope. The Court also finds that plaintiffs have satisfied the requirements of Rule 23, making certification appropriate.

II.DISCUSSION

A. Scope of the Proposed Class

The SSA identifies four alleged flaws in the proposed class definition. The first three concern the prerequisites to judicial review of the SSA's benefit decisions set forth in Section 405(g) of the Social Security Act. Individuals may commence litigation challenging a denial of benefits by the SSA if they first (1) present a claim to the SSA, (2) exhaust the SSA's administrative review process, and (3) bring suit within the 60-day statute of limitations. See City of New York v. Heckler ("City of New York"), 742 F.2d 729, 734 (2d Cir. 1984), aff'd sub nom. Bowen v. City of New York ("Bowen"), 476 U.S. 467 (1986). The SSA maintains that the proposed class definition is too broad because it encompasses individuals who failed to satisfy these preconditions to suit. The SSA's fourth objection is that the nationwide class proposed is inappropriate. The ...


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