Thousands of disabled Utahns who were denied Social Security disability claims in the early 1990s may be entitled to retroactive benefits.

U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell on Wednesday approved a settlement agreement worked out three months ago to end years of litigation and begin processing benefit applications.The settlement means disabled people whose claims were rejected between January 1991 and February 1994 and who did not appeal the decision are eligible to have their claims reconsidered by qualified physicians or psychologists.

Social Security Administration lawyers have estimated that as much as $22 million in retroactive benefits is owed to as many as 5,000 disabled Utahns. However, Salt Lake attorney Brent Manning, who represented the class-action plaintiffs, said the figure could go "much higher."

Many of the original applicants were homeless and mobile and may be difficult to find, Manning said. The settlement includes a $20,000 fund to get the word out to potential claimants after the responsible federal and state agencies have done their best to locate them.

Manning said anyone who thinks they qualify for retroactive benefits should contact their local Social Security office. Applicants will be asked for basic identifying information and the date of their original claim.

Utah Legal Services filed the lawsuit against the Social Security Administration and Utah Division of Disability Determinative Services in 1992 on behalf of seven disabled Salt Lake residents who were denied benefits.

According to Manning, the process for evaluating benefit claims was flawed because cases were being reviewed by government clerks rather than by doctors as required by federal regulations. He noted that about 80 percent of all the cases that were appealed were ultimately decided in favor of the disabled claimant.

The Utah disability services agency changed its procedures to comply with federal rules shortly after attorneys for the plaintiffs began taking depositions in the case in 1994.

The case was later certified as a class-action lawsuit representing as many as 30,000 potential plaintiffs. Manning took over the litigation in 1996 after Congress barred legal aid agencies from handling class-action suits.

Two of the original seven plaintiffs died before the settlement was reached and the other five were awarded benefits under a separate determination.