Righting a costly Social Security error

The future looked promising for the young man as he prepared to further his education by attending graduate school. Then he got an unexpected and unpleasant surprise in March that threatened to derail his plans.

The Social Security Administration notified him that it had overpaid him about $13,500 in benefits and wanted the money back. His monthly benefit also was cut off, money he needed until he was in graduate school The man, 33, had been meticulous about his records and thought he had provided all the relevant information to Social Security.

“He was befuddled,” said Jacob M. Eden, a staff attorney at the AIDS Law Project. “He was upset he was receiving these bills.”

The student appealed the decision on his own in April, but was rejected again. Social Security said he should not have been paid in any given month when he had more than $2,000 in his bank account. The man was aware of the rule, but also thought student loan payments were exempt. He was right. The only months he had more than $2,000 was when he’d received a student loan payment.

“He knew the rules,” Jacob said. “He provided all the information required and he still lost.”

Although he had provided all the relevant information, Social Security said they couldn’t determine the timing and amounts of the payments. A second appeal would have to go to an administrative law judge, which could take many months. That would have played havoc with the man’s plans for his future. He wanted to sell his house by the end of June so he could move to go to graduate school. Reviewing the case, Jacob realized Social Security had not given the man a face-to-face meeting, as regulation required.

“They made the decision before doing all the due process,” Jacob said.

Jacob successfully argued that the case should stay in the local Social Security office, avoiding lengthy delays. A personal conference was scheduled in May, which Jacob attended with his client. But it wasn’t over yet. Although Social Security restarted the man’s $733-a-month benefit, it said it would deduct money for the overpayment, which should never have been imposed. Jacob was able to deal with that problem with a phone call. Social Security agreed that the man owed nothing.