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NYLAG Sues Social Security Administration for Keeping Key Policies Secret from the Public and Wrongfully Charging Fees to Public Interest Organizations

NEW YORK, NY — On Tuesday, the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG)—a leading legal services organization that provides legal assistance to over 1,000 individuals per year who receive benefits administered by the Social Security Administration—filed a lawsuit against the Social Security Administration (SSA) alleging two systemic violations of the Freedom of Information Act. 

First, NYLAG challenges SSA’s policy and practice of denying virtually all public interest fee waivers to non-profit organizations requesting documents under FOIA. In the past three years, SSA denied 99.7% of FOIA fee waiver applications. Numerous other federal agencies grant these applications at a rate over 100 times higher than SSA’s rate. 

Second, NYLAG challenges SSA’s policy and practice of keeping key policy documents secret from the public. Specifically, NYLAG challenges SSA’s failure to make publicly available online: (1) the entirety of the Program Operations Manual System (“POMS”), which is an administrative manual used by SSA staff that contains policies controlling virtually every aspect of the administration of benefits by SSA; (2) all Emergency Messages (EMs) and Administrative Messages (AMs), which supplement the POMS as directions to SSA staff on how to conduct SSA’s business, often under certain, time-limited circumstances; and (3) an index of each of these documents. 

“Secret SSA policies are impossible to challenge. Making these policies public is the only way to hold SSA accountable for following the law,” said Daneille Tarantolo, Director of NYLAG’s Special Litigation Unit. 

NYLAG also challenges SSA’s denial of fee waivers for two of its own requests, and the agency’s failure to respond to those requests. NYLAG relies on access to SSA policies and records to provide its clients with information on SSA’s processes and counsel them on accessing the benefits they need to afford food, health care, and housing. SSA puts significant obstacles in the way of NYLAG’s work and consequentially does serious harm to its clients when they are unable to access key policies and other records that would assist them in obtaining the critical benefits their clients need to survive. 

“Everyone deserves to have full access to SSA’s policies, which govern virtually every aspect of benefits that millions of Americans rely upon to pay for critical needs like housing, food, and medical care,” said Michelle Spadafore, Project Director of NYLAG’s Disability Advocacy Project. “NYLAG is filing this lawsuit to level the playing field for our clients so that they are empowered with the information they need to receive and maintain the benefits that they are legally entitled to.” 


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