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When Judges Sue the Social Security Administration

On 4/18/13, the Association of Administrative Law Judges (AALJ),the union representing the approximately 1500 administrative law judges (ALJs) working for the Social Security Administration (SSA), filed a lawsuit concerning undue pressures being put upon them by SSA to deny disability claims. This lawsuit has been a long time coming. It has been known in the media and from several individual cases brought to our attention that the SSA has been cracking down on ALJs who statistically approve more disability cases than others. This includes targeting these ALJs for repeated and harassing work actions to encourage them to cease and desist payment to claimants and/or retire from service. It is nothing less than disgraceful. Whereas, ALJs who deny a far greater percentage than others are left unfettered.

The lawsuit filed by the AALJ contains the following allegations:

  • Over the last five years, SSA disability workloads have grown significantly due to aging Baby Boomers and the economic recession
  • ALJs have been scapegoated by SSA senior management for delays in the hearing process rather than addressing the issues of increased claims and the failure to allocate sufficient resources to deal with handling the claims
  • SSA has imposed an illegal production quotas on the ALJs, requiring them to decide 500 – 700 cases per year (which they term “unconscionable”). This corresponds to the writing of 2.37 dispositions per work day.
  • SSA admits that the quota has not been set by “any documented methodology” which does not account for the complexity of cases to be decided. Rather, the quota is driven by a pre-set number of “budgeted dispositions” for a fiscal year
  • This quota infringes on the statutorily-guaranteed right to judicial independence and has resulted in disparities in allowance rates of cases
  • For many ALJs, it is less burdensome to approve disability claims than to write claim denials which take more time and work intensivity
  • On average, more than one half of ALJ decisions are overturned in the federal district courts
  • In 2011, SSA paid over $180B in disability payments (including $1B in attorney fees)
  • Each claim costs SSA $300,000 in lifetime benefits on average
  • ALJs have been subjected to “counseling” and off-the-record performance-related actions by SSA managers for failing to keep pace with the quota. This quota has been enforced so strictly that “counseling” took place where one ALJ missed the quota by only 5 cases
  • New rules have been proposed by SSA management to take away self-scheduling of hearing with the Administration scheduling cases for them to ensure compliance with the quota
  • SSA Managers also have withheld resources and staff from ALJs who have failed to meet the quotas (guaranteeing failure by this ALJs followed by additional discipline)
  • When an ALJ falls ill, the other ALJs in the respective hearing office are assigned more cases and are expected to render more decisions to that the office quota is met (as there are office quotas in addition to individual quotas)
  • As a result of the time pressures caused by the quota, ALJs are faced with difficult decisions concerning whether to request additional medical reports or ordering a consultative medical evaluation. Further, their decisions tend to be less thorough

So, what does this tell us? It is extremely obvious that there is a very big disconnect between SSA senior management and the ALJ corp. Filing a very public lawsuit typically is a sign that efforts to negotiate a workable solution have been unsuccessful. As we all know, airing grievances in a public forum as such will inevitably be embarrassing to both sides in the dispute.

How does this get fixed? Well, resolution by the courts could take a long time and is, in all likelihood, not the reason for bringing suit. The real intention of filing suit is to focus attention on the issues publicly. Given the current criticism SSA has been receiving as a result of record backlogs and other inefficiency, in this case, there will certainly be a call for Congressional oversight hearings.

What this firm (and the general public) would prefer done is that SSA and ALJs get their act together, work as a team, and try to reduce the backlog of cases in the system rather than engaging in a meaningless act of finger-pointing. All involved just need to do a better job. If they cannot appreciate that they hold positions of great authority and respect and feel that they can act so childishly, then their positions should be filled by person who care more for the citizenry than their respective organizational goals and disputes. There are many folks in this country who would prefer to have these jobs than the ones they currently hold. It is hard to argue that they would do a worse job.

Posted in Social Security Disability Benefits | Tagged , , , , , |

 

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