The National Law Journal Honors Munger Tolles with Pro Bono Award

The National Law Journal named Munger, Tolles & Olson a recipient of its Pro Bono Awards, given to “lawyers doing exemplary work upholding the principle that justice shouldn’t be contingent on one’s ability to pay.”  Munger Tolles was one of four firms recognized for their pro bono efforts during the past year.

Munger, Tolles & Olson, in partnership with the National Senior Citizens Law Center, Disability Rights California and the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County secured a half a billion dollar settlement of a national class action against the U.S. Social Security Administration on August 11, 2009. The more than 200,000 plaintiffs in the case are now eligible to apply for Social Security, Social Security Disability, and/or Special Veteran’s Benefits, but had previously been wrongfully denied those benefits (or had their benefits suspended) by the SSA. Approximately 80,000 of the class members who were denied or suspended under the policy after January 1, 2007, are also eligible to receive back benefits from the SSA.

The case, Martinez v. Astrue, led by Munger Tolles San Francisco partner David H. Fry and associates Mark R. Conrad and Jeremy S. Kroger, challenged the SSA’s method of implementing a narrowly drawn provision of the Social Security Act, a 1996 federal statute that seeks to prevent people from using government benefits to flee from arrest. Rather than trying to determine which benefit recipients were actually fleeing prosecution, SSA implemented a computer system to simply match names in a warrant database to those at SSA.  Many of the resulting matches involved false or unproven allegations, minor infractions or long-dormant arrest warrants, which local police had declined to pursue. Although SSA regulations provide for an appeal process, individuals losing benefits were routinely, inaccurately informed by SSA staff that they could not appeal. Under the terms of the settlement, SSA has stopped, as of April 1, 2009, suspending or denying benefits due to the mere existence of a warrant – unless the warrant is issued in a criminal proceeding on a charge such as flight or escape.

Mr. Fry told the National Law Journal, “These are some of the most vulnerable people in our society… They are either elderly or disabled.  They have basically no resources.  When you cut off their benefits, you are basically sending them out into the streets.”