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Second Circuit: No Social Security Payments for Prisoners

Last year, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that the “No Social Security Benefits for Prisoners Act (the Act), Pub. L. No. 111-115, 123 Stat. 3029 (2009), bars the Social Security Administration (SSA) from making any payments to incarcerated individuals covered by the Act, “regardless of when the underlying obligation to pay the individual arose.”

In April 2002, Felipe O. Fowlkes filed a pro se complaint in federal district court in New York against two SSA officials and an SSA administrative law judge. He alleged that his Supplemental Social Security (SSI) benefits had been improperly suspended based on the erroneous conclusion that he was a fugitive felon, and the suspension constituted a violation of his due process rights.

The district court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss. The Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Fowlkes’ due process claim, but remanded the case because the lower court should have construed the remainder of his complaint as a petition for review of an adverse SSA determination. The Court of Appeals held that Fowlkes’ SSI benefits could only be suspended when a warrant or order issues from a court on a finding that he had fled or was fleeing from justice, which had not occurred. See: Fowlkes v. Adamec, 432 F.3d 90 (2d Cir. 2005).

Fowlkes subsequently prevailed with the SSA, as there was no evidence that he was a fugitive felon at the time his SSI benefits were suspended. On December 12, 2007, the U.S. Treasury sent Fowlkes, who was incarcerated, a refund check for $9,785.32. Prison officials intercepted the check, advising Fowlkes that he had to endorse and deposit it into his prisoner account. Fowlkes refused, insisting that the check be sent to a person or bank outside the prison. Prison officials returned the check to the SSA, which declined Fowlkes’ request to reissue the check because he was incarcerated.

Fowlkes filed a post-judgment motion with the district court in November 2010, for an order directing the SSA to reissue his refund check. The court denied his motion and Fowlkes appealed.

The Second Circuit found the text of the Act makes it clear that “an incarcerated individual who has been underpaid social security benefits may not receive payment of those benefits until he or she is released from prison.” This restriction applies “even if the underlying obligation to pay predates the Act,” as was the case here.

In affirming the district court’s denial of Fowlkes’ motion, the Second Circuit held the Act is not impermissibly retroactive. See: Fowlkes v. Thomas, 667 F.3d 270 (2d Cir. 2012).

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Related legal case

Fowlkes v. Thomas