Wet-Ink Signature Requirement Endangers Social Security Disability Applicants and Recipients During COVID-19, Lawsuit Says

National Federation of the Blind and Others Ask Court to Require Acceptance of E-signatures

Timothy Cole is being treated for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His treatment leaves him immunocompromised and unable to work, and places him at additional risk during the COVID-19 pandemic. He needs to apply for disability benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA) and the safest way to do so would be to fill out the application online at his home in Jacksonville, Florida. Because he is immunocompromised, leaving his home or interacting with paper mail is dangerous for Mr. Cole. But since he plans to hire an attorney to help with the complex application process, he cannot submit his application online because applicants using authorized representatives, like attorneys, must sign a paper copy of their application. This is true even though SSA has an online application and electronic signatures are accessible, secure, and federally approved.

Mr. Cole and three other plaintiffs, along with the National Federation of the Blind, are suing the Social Security Administration in federal court. They seek a court order requiring SSA to allow e-signatures on applications rather than requiring a “wet-ink” signature when the applicant is using an attorney or other authorized representative. SSA does not require wet-ink signatures for applications for some benefits when an authorized representative is not being used by the applicant. The suit contends that the requirement has always been discriminatory, but during the COVID-19 pandemic it also endangers the health and even the lives of applicants, as even SSA has recognized in quarantining its own mail for two days and shutting down its field offices.

The lawsuit also asks the court to order SSA to allow blind people to fill out the application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) online. Blind people are categorically excluded from applying for this benefit using the online application. The suit also asks that the court require e-signatures to be accepted on paperwork required when a beneficiary is subject to a continuing disability review (CDR), as is one of the blind plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

“The Social Security Administration regularly interacts with hundreds of thousands of blind people and other consumers with disabilities,” said Mark Riccobono, President of the National Federation of the Blind. “Yet policies like this one persist, despite the fact that the SSA has both the authority and the capability to accept electronic signatures. It is both unlawful and unconscionable that this agency continues to place blind and disabled consumers at a severe disadvantage, especially during a life-threatening global pandemic. Government should innovate, not discriminate.”

The lawsuit has been filed in the US District Court for the District of Columbia. The plaintiffs are represented by Eve L. HillAndrew D. Freeman, and Abigail A. Graber of the Baltimore law firm Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP.