June 23, 2024
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Klass had spent his whole life in the U.S., attending school, serving in law enforcement, marrying, raising a family, paying taxes, and voting. Yet as he was preparing to enjoy his retirement in Clearwater, Florida, in 2020, he faced a startling setback. The Social Security Administration (SSA) informed him that he would not receive the $1,649.90 monthly retirement benefits he was previously approved for because he was not a U.S. citizen.

“I was completely blindsided,” he shared with ABC Action News Tampa Bay, describing the unexpected twist in his life story.

Born in Canada to a Canadian mother and an American father, Klass moved to the U.S. in 1959 and had lived there ever since. He believed he held dual citizenship. Throughout his life, his citizenship was never questioned. He easily obtained his Social Security card, driver’s license, and voter registration card. His service as a marine and later with the New Jersey state police further solidified his identity as an American, never once stirring doubts about his citizenship status.

Laughing, he remarked, “I’ve been voting for over 40 years. I guess I’m in a lot of trouble.”

Everything seemed in order when he received a letter from the SSA in 2019 confirming his eligibility for retirement benefits, with payments to start in January 2020. However, the payments never came, and instead, he received a letter challenging his entitlement to these benefits.

Upon discovering the issue with his citizenship, Klass promptly applied for U.S. citizenship but was denied due to insufficient evidence of his father’s presence in the U.S. for the required ten years prior to his birth. He has since enlisted the aid of an immigration attorney and a genealogist to help resolve his citizenship status and secure the benefits he believes he’s rightfully earned.

“I worked my 50 years and I paid into my Social Security. They should be paying me,” he stated firmly.

This scenario is not common, as Fort Myers-based immigration attorney Indera Demine explained to Action News. She noted the lack of inter-agency communication in past years allowed many like Klass to go unquestioned. Documentation requirements for renewing driver’s licenses or claiming Social Security benefits were not as rigorous as they are now.

Klass is not alone in his struggle with the SSA over benefits. In recent years, the agency has begun recovering billions in overpayments, issuing notices to about one million Americans annually. According to KFF Health News, many of these overpayments were the result of government errors, impacting mainly the elderly, poor, or disabled who received the funds.
Legally challenging the denial of Social Security benefits, as in Klass’s case, involves a multi-step process that typically starts with an appeal within the Social Security Administration (SSA). If these administrative remedies are exhausted, the case can be taken to federal court. Here, the focus would be on proving either that Klass qualifies as a citizen under the law, or that the SSA’s decision to withhold benefits was improper due to a procedural error or misinterpretation of the law.

One legal argument could center on the doctrine of “equitable estoppel,” which can be invoked against the government in rare instances where a person has relied upon official actions or statements to their detriment. In Klass’s situation, his lifelong assumption of citizenship, supported by governmental issuance of key identification documents and no prior challenge to his citizenship status, could potentially form the basis for this argument. His attorney might argue that the government’s late-stage denial of benefits is unjust, considering his decades of living as a citizen, contributing to Social Security, and fulfilling civic duties like voting.

Additionally, the case might involve a thorough examination of the historical evidence of Klass’s father’s presence in the U.S. for the required period before his birth, to meet the citizenship criteria through parental lineage. The legal team could leverage genealogical records, historical documents, and testimonies to substantiate his claim.

If successful, a court ruling in favor of Klass could not only secure his retirement benefits but also set a precedent for similar cases where individuals face retroactive denials of benefits due to citizenship issues. This would require a detailed legal strategy, which a Florida Social Security Disability Attorney may be able to help with. They would need to focus on both statutory interpretation and the equitable principles that underpin U.S. law.

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