20 CFR 404.468

SSR 83-28c

Cobb v. Secretary of HHS, USDC, E.D. Mich., S. Div., Civ. No. 81-60224 (7/21/82)

When the claimant applied for disability insurance benefits, the Social Security Administration (SSA) determined, under 42 U.S.C. 423(f)(1), that such benefits were not payable because the claimant was an incarcerated felon who was not participating in an approved rehabilitation program. The claimant appealed, challenging the constitutionality of that statute on several grounds. The district court found that the purpose of disability and medical care to those persons who suffer economic hardship produced by the inability to earn a subsistence level of wages. Prisoners like the claimant, however, are not subject to identical economic hardships and do not need a continuing source of income because their basic needs are already furnished at public expense. Therefore, the court concluded that Congress had a rational justification for suspending benefits for imprisoned felons and determined that the statute did not violate equal protection rather to advance the remedial purposes of the Social Security Act and, thus, was not an unconstitutional ex post facto law or Bill or Attainer. The district court also found no merit in the claimant's contentions that the affirming SSA's determination regarding the nonpayment of disability insurance benefits to the claimant, the court held that 42 U.S.C. 423(f)(1) is constitutional.

JOINER, District Judge:

This case stands before the Court on Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment pursuant to FRCivP 56. Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits on January 17, 1980. This application was denied initially and upon reconsideration and subsequently heard de novo by an Administrative Law Judge before whom Plaintiff, his attorney and a vocational expert appeared. The Administrative Law Judge denied benefits and his decision became final upon Appeals Council approval.

In this action, atypical of other Social Security cases, Plaintiff does not contest the administrative determinations denying benefits; instead Plaintiff challenges the constitutionality of a particular provision of the Social Security Act. 42 USC, Sec. 423(f)(1) the basis for the Secretary's decision is unconstitutional, according to Plaintiff, because suspending benefits for incarcerated felons transgresses due process, denies equal protection is vague and overbroad and presents ex post facto legislative action.

Plaintiff's first claim that denying benefits to incarcerated felons presents an unconstitutional taking of property without due process has no merit. The statute directly provides that imprisoned felons my receive benefits if they are disable and participate in a satisfactory rehabilitation program while confined. The rehabilitation program must be approved by a competent court. Thus, a person in this situation is endowed with the opportunity completely conforms and suffices for due process considerations.

Moreover, the statute also complies with equal protection principles. Congress created dichotomy exempting incarcerated felons who forego participation in approved rehabilitation programs from receiving disability benefits. Under notions of equal protection, unless this categorization lacks a rational justification, the legislative scheme must be upheld. Flemming v. Nestor, 363 _____ US _____ 603 (1960). Suspension of benefits for imprisoned felons does not lack rational justification. The purpose of disability benefits functions to provide basic human living needs for food, clothing, shelter and medical care. The legislative scheme alleviates the economic hardships produced by the inability to earn a subsistence level of wages.

Here, obviously, providing incarcerated prisoners such benefits does not prompt the legislative purpose. Such persons are already furnish basic needs at public expense and these persons are not subjected to the identical economic hardships. The legislative history amply supports the Congressional intent to eliminate imprisoned felons' benefits because such a person, when maintained at public expense, has no need of a continuing source of income. S. Rep. No. 96-9B7, 96th Cong. 2nd Session 8, 1980, U.S. Code Cong. and Adm. News, 4787 at 4794-95. Thus, the legislative history demonstrates a rational, purposeful scheme by the Congress to suspend disability benefits for incarcerated felons. The presence of legislative justification overwhelms Plaintiff's equal protection argument.

Next, Plaintiff's vagueness and overbreadth challenges are not persuasive. The statute clearly exempts only incarcerated felons who fail to partake of an approved rehabilitation program. Imposing such specific limits is certainly not contrary to overbreadth doctrines. Nor can the statute by viewed as void for vagueness. The statutes' meaning is clear and precise by its terms, applying solely to incarcerated felons and permitting court adjudication in the rehabilitation program. Additionally, the statute enunciated standards for such rehabilitation programs. These programs should result in the person being able to engage in substantial gainful activity upon release with a reasonable period of time. The plain terms statute as well as its guidelines for satisfactory rehabilitation programs negate Plaintiff's vagueness argument.

Lastly, the suspension of disability benefits for imprisoned felons does not present an ex post facto law or Bill of Attainder. Nothing in this provision indicates a legislative attempt to punish. Simply, the statute includes no punitive elements. The suspension of benefits is not conditioned to any particular form of conduct but applies to all felony crimes. Second, only felons who are confined have benefits suspended and then only for the duration of the incarceration. Third, derivative benefits for family members are not terminated. Fourth, even imprisoned felons may obtain disability benefits if participation in a rehabilitation program is undertaken. Thus, benefits are foregone only temporarily, if at all. These factors establish that the statutory provision is not designed to punish but rather to exhort the remedial purposes of the Social Security Act. This provision cannot be deemed an unconstitutional ex post facto law or Bill of Attainer.

In sum, 42 USC 423(f)(1) is not unconstitutional for any basis advanced by Plaintiff. Rather, the statute rationally rests upon the reasonable attempt by Congress to provide disability benefit only to those persons who suffer economic hardship and are deprived of a continuing source of income to satisfy basic food, clothing, shelter and medical needs. Congress perceived that furnishing disability benefits to imprisoned felons would not advance the remedial purposes of the Social Security Act and therefore amended the statute to suspend such benefits. The Congressional choice and the means to employ its options do not contradict the Constitution.

Back to Table of Contents