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Santa Cruz County woman caught in Social Security bureaucracy wins court ruling

  December 28, 2020 | By Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle

A Santa Cruz County woman was denied federal disability benefits in 2017, appealed and said she heard nothing until her lawyer contacted the Social Security Administration nearly two years later and learned she had been turned down. But federal officials insisted they had notified Julie Ashe promptly and said she had forfeited the right to appeal further.

A federal magistrate agreed and dismissed the disability claim. But the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said Monday that Ashe apparently had done everything she could and was entitled to pursue her appeal unless the government comes up with evidence, which it has yet to produce, that it had actually contacted her.

Ashe, of Aptos, sought Supplemental Security Income benefits for a disability that is not disclosed in the public record, was denied by a hearing officer in November 2017 and promptly appealed. The administration’s Appeals Council ruled against her in April 2018 and said in later court filings that it had immediately mailed notices of the denial to Ashe and her attorney.

The attorney, Andrew Shaffer, said he called the Appeals Council in October 2019 and was told of its action for the first time. A day later, Ashe filed an appeal in federal court, the next step for applicants turned down by the agency. But the Social Security Administration said she was too late, because its rules require an applicant to appeal no later than 60 days after being notified of a denial — which is presumed to have arrived five days after having been mailed.

The same issue has arisen in other cases in the nine-state circuit, and lower courts have set varying standards on proving a notice was or wasn’t received. In this case, the appeals court said, a Social Security official found notices to both Ashe and her attorney in its file, but no documentation that they had actually been mailed.

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