A Win for Language Access

LEP individuals cannot have a fair hearing without an interpreter

Last February, Advancing Justice | AAJC filed an amicus brief in Social Security Administration v. Butler, a case involving the right to a fair hearing for limited English proficient (LEP) people. This month, the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) issued a ruling agreeing with us that the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) policy of providing an interpreter for LEP individuals is necessary to fulfill their right to a fair hearing.

The question began with Larry J. Butler, an administrative law judge for the Social Security Administration who holds hearings on the amount of Social Security benefits that claimants may receive, including those who are limited English proficient. An existing SSA policy required judges to provide interpreters to claimants whenever requested. Despite the policy, Butler refused interpreters to LEP individuals on several occasions, claiming the rule interfered with his right to control his courtroom.

Advancing Justice | AAJC, along with partner organizations who also represent Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, asserted in the amicus brief that denying access to an interpreter undermines the right of LEP Social Security claimants to a fair hearing where the claimants are able to understand proceedings.

“[W]e do not understand how an interpreter could be considered anything but necessary and proper for a claimant with possible limited English proficiency in an SSA hearing.”

The MSPB agreed, declaring in their opinion that “[W]e do not understand how an interpreter could be considered anything but necessary and proper for a claimant with possible limited English proficiency in an SSA hearing.” The opinion went on to note that an LEP individual could hardly be said to have received a full hearing if denied an interpreter, as required by the Social Security Act.

The decision was a victory for advocates of limited English proficient communities, and we’re proud to have played a role in this decision. Advancing Justice | AAJC was represented in this matter pro bono by attorneys at Hogan & Lovells, specifically by Warren Maruyama, Daryl L. Kleiman, Amanda R. Levin, Katherine A. Nelson, and Deborah M. Wei. Their support and hard work made this result possible.