On November 16, 2005, a group of visually impaired recipients of Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") and/or Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI"), along with a national nonprofit comprised of the visually impaired, filed a class action lawsuit under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment against the Social Security Administration ("SSA") in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Francisco Division. The plaintiff, represented by private counsel, sought declaratory and injunctive relief, claiming that the SSA consistently refused to communicate with visually impaired beneficiaries through reasonably accessible means. Specifically, plaintiffs claimed that such conduct deprived blind people of equal access to information necessary to maintaining benefits and therefore constituted unlawful discrimination.
On April 23, 2008, the Court (Judge William Alsup) denied defendants' motion to dismiss and requested further briefing regarding how the court should proceed. Holding that §504 of the Rehabilitation Act trumped the special-notice provisions, the order stated that Congress intended to improve notice to blind recipients when it passed the special notice provision. Both parties requested to continue litigating the claims on a class-wide basis, as opposed to staying the case to give the SSA time to amend its rules and policies to conform with that holding.
On September 11, 2008, the Court certified two classes. Though both of these classes consisted of individuals with visual impairments who needed materials in an accessible format to participate in Social Security programs, one class was comprised of applicants and beneficiaries, and the other was comprised of representative payees.
On October 20, 2009, the Court granted declaratory and injunctive relief to the plaintiffs after a bench trial, finding that while the plaintiffs had not proven a class-wide violation of due process, they had proven a class-wide violation of the Rehabilitation Act's §504 and §85.51. Because the SSA had earlier spurned the opportunity for a stay pending rulemaking, the Court found that the agency had effectively consented to resolve the case by litigating on a class-wide basis and therefore ordered a class-wide injunction. This order mandated that SSA develop and offer a Braille and a navigable Microsoft Word CD alternative, notify all known visually impaired recipients of these new alternatives, announce these alternatives on their website, train employees to orally communicate this news to the blind, comply in good faith with §85.51 requirements regarding further individual accommodations, and cease limiting benefits to visually impaired recipients without first providing the notice prescribed above. The Court retained jurisdiction to enforce this order.
On January 22, 2010, the Court amended the compliance schedule to allow the SSA more time to implement the aforementioned order.
On April 16, 2012, the Court informed both parties' counsel that it had received a lengthy letter from a class member regarding alleged violations of the 2009 order; the Court ordered counsel to meet, confer, and advise on how the letter should be addressed. On April 30, 2012, counsel submitted a joint statement identifying most of the class member's complaints as outside the scope of the Court's order or outside the Court's jurisdiction, excepting one standard-print letter that should have been sent in Braille. The SSA agreed to resend that particular letter in Braille, and the class member was instructed to inform class counsel if further violations of the Court's order occur.Timothy Shoffner - 06/01/2012