And a recent change to the way SSA handles those claims, argues Arruda, is not only "unreasonable and onerous," it contravenes the Privacy Act and the Freedom of Information Act, further aggravating the situation.
"Just read the class-action complaint we filed and you'll ask yourself 'what the hell are these people doing?' says Arruda. "We felt a court intervention was the only way to deal with this."
Routine requests for access to his clients' social security information file have been regularly obstructed, even though Arruda is making a legal request as instructed by a client.
"A year ago, our local office told us, you need to go to the social security in the jurisdiction where your client lives to get this information," says an incredulous Arruda, whose clients are spread across the country. "It used to take 45 minutes to get information on 900 clients," he adds. "Think about how long it will take for information on one client."
Not only that, the SSA office was asking for a fee of $45 per request. "I could pass this cost on to the client," says Arruda.
"But wait a second here. These records belong to the clients. I represent those clients. Those records belong to them and should be free of charge."
Data entry errors often cost claimants money. Interestingly, it is often Arruda and his team that identify those errors and, as he notes, "that keeps a lot of people off those toll-free telephone lines and out of the social security offices." Blocking attorney access to their clients' files means those errors go unnoticed with disastrous consequences.
"One of our clients was over paid!" says Arruda. "She got $64,000 when she was only supposed to receive $37,000."
"By the time we caught the mistake, she had spent 80 percent of the overage. Now they are going after her and she is pretty ticked off," says Arruda.
"The SSA's failure to provide attorneys with access to information hinders the correct and timely administration of Social Security benefits," says the class-action complaint.
It asks that SSA expedite the information and provide injunction relief.
Victor Arruda is an attorney with the Social Security Law Firm based in Massachusetts. Arruda has been working to help people with social security claims for 15 years.