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No Means No: Court Denies Social Security Benefits for Prisoner

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Some federal laws have ambiguous names. How do titles like the American Dream Restoration Act or the Common Sense Legal Reforms Act indicate the goal of the corresponding legislation?

The No Social Security Benefits for Prisoners Act isn't so murky. As the title would indicate, the law denies social security benefits for prisoners. For good measure, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals clarified this week in a published opinion that title of the Act did not conceal a legislative caveat.

No social security benefits really means no social security benefits.

Plaintiff Felipe Fowlkes filed a complaint against two Social Security Administration officials, and an SSA administrative law judge in 2002, alleging that his supplemental social security benefits had been improperly suspended in March 2000 on the erroneous conclusion that he was a fugitive felon, and that the suspension violated his right to due process.

Fowlkes won his review of the adverse SSA determination, and SSA sent a check, including retroactive payments, to Fowlkes prison address in 2007.

Fowlkes, however, refused to deposit the check into his inmate account in compliance with prison regulations, so the prison returned the check to SSA. When Fowlkes tried to get SSA to return the check to him, he was informed that he was no longer entitled to receive the check because he was incarcerated. That's because Congress enacted the No Social Security Benefits for Prisoners Act in December 2009.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the No Social Security Benefits for Prisoners Act was crystal clear: Congress intended to prohibit any payments of social security benefits to prisoners, even retroactive payments, after the Act's effective date.

Furthermore, the court ruled that the Act is not impermissibly retroactive because it directs only that social security benefit payments be held until an individual is released from incarceration. The Act alters only the procedure and timing for payment of retroactive social security benefit payments; it does not affect prisoners' substantive rights to those benefits.

While we agree with the Second Circuit Court of Appeals that the intent of the No Social Security Benefits for Prisoners Act in unambiguous, do you think that a prisoner could make an argument that the law unfairly denies him the interest he would accrue from his social security benefits if he were allowed to collect and deposit the checks while serving his term?

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