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Serving People from Arrest to Reintegration

Garnes v. Barnhart, C-02-4428 (ND Cal. Nov. 5, 2004)

  • Organization: ND California
  • Document Type: Case law/admin decisions
  • Date Created: Tuesday, December 06, 2005
  • Submitted: Tuesday, December 06, 2005
  • Attachment(s): PDF

November 30, 2004

NSCLC Wins Challenge to SSI "Fugitive Felon" Policy

A federal district court in California has ruled, in a case brought by NSCLC, that the Social Security Administration (SSA) erred in suspending the Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI) benefits of a woman for allegedly "fleeing to avoid prosecution" simply because she did not appear in court and left the jurisdiction when she knew charges were pending against her in Virginia back in 1990. Garnes v. Barnhart, 352 F.Supp.2d 1059 (N.D. Cal. 2004).

In his decision, Chief Judge Vaughn R. Walker completely rejected the agency's expansive interpretation of the statutory provision that provides for suspension of SSI benefits when an "individual is fleeing to avoid prosecution." 42 U.S.C. §1382(e)(4)(A). In particular, he found SSA's contention that there was no intent requirement in the statute to be "unsupportable." He concluded that the agency's interpretation was inconsistent with dictionary definitions and with the interpretation the courts have given to similar language in a federal criminal statute providing for tolling of the statute of limitations when an individual is "fleeing from justice." See also, Hull v. Barnhart, 336 F.Supp.2d 1113 (D. Or. 2004), reported in NSCLC Washington Weekly, July 2, 2004.

The court also found SSA's policy at odds with its own regulations, which require a warrant or order "issued by a court or other duly authorized tribunal on the basis of an appropriate finding that the individual is fleeing, or has fled, to avoid prosecution." 20 C.F.R. § 416.1339(b)(1)(I). SSA's policy to take steps to terminate benefits simply on learning of the existence of an outstanding warrant "would make this language superfluous." Slip op., p. 11.

Plaintiff successfully argued before the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) that she left Virginia to move to California with her mother shortly after the charges were filed because her grandmother had just died and her mother had to return to California to care for plaintiff's ailing grandfather. Plaintiff contended she was unable to live on her own. The Appeals Council reversed the ALJ, finding it sufficient that plaintiff knew of the charges against her and left the state while the charges were still pending.

Judge Walker took the Appeals Council to task, noting that its "analysis makes assumptions about plaintiff's ability to manage her legal and personal affairs that are not supported by any evidence in the record." Slip opinion, p. 13. He also notes that "the Appeals Council made no findings regarding plaintiff's mental competence at the time of these events, nor whether it was financially or logistically possible for her to remain in Virginia to resolve her legal problems after her mother left." Id., 13-14.

The court remanded the matter to SSA for "either (1) reinstatement of benefits…or (2) further proceedings…to determine whether or not plaintiff had the necessary mental capacity and/or mental state to be "fleeing to avoid prosecution" when she left Virginia in June 1990 and during her subsequent years in California."

The Garnes decision is the fourth district court decision this year to find SSA's policy unlawful with respect to this statute. NSCLC knows of no decisions supporting the agency's position. In addition to Hull, previous decisions include Blakely v. Commissioner, 330 F.Supp.2d 910 (W.D. Mich., S. Div. 2004) and Thomas v. Barnhart, 2004 WL 1635353 (D. Me. June 24, 2004), adopted 2004 WL 1770151 (Aug. 4, 2004). See, NSCLC Washington Weekly March 19, 2004, and Aug. 6, 2004, respectively.

Garnes is in accord with earlier decisions on the need for the agency to establish intent and on the need for the warrant or court order to contain an appropriate finding that the individual is fleeing to avoid prosecution. It breaks new ground, however, in its emphasis on the need for the agency to establish the individual's mental capacity to form the requisite intent, particularly when the individual is receiving benefits on the basis of a documented mental impairment.


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