As experienced Social Security disability attorneys with more than 50 years of combined experience representing clients in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, we've long known that the outcome of a particular case can depend on which Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) from the Social security Administration (SSA) is assigned to hear it. After a year in which the SSA has taken heat for judges that appear unfairly predisposed to deny claims as well as one allegedly approves claims too frequently, the Administration is taking action.
The Wall Street Journal's Damien Paletta reports that "[t]he Social Security Administration has commissioned an independent review of the federal disability system amid concerns it awards benefits to those who don't deserve them and denies benefits to those who do." The Administrative Conference of the United States, a public-private organization designed to make government more efficient, will review the work of the SSA's more than 1,500 ALJs and release recommendations for improving the claims process in 2012.
Additionally, in an effort to prevent so-called "judge shopping," Paletta reports that the SSA will discontinue its practice of notifying claimants of which ALJ has been assigned to his or her respective claim. It is assumed by SSA that if a Representative doesn't know which ALJ is assigned to the case, there will be less of an inclination to try to get the case reassigned. Although we believe that SSA's action is flawed and is penalizing both the claimant's and the scrupulous attorneys who represent their clients at the hearing regardless of who the assigned ALJ is, we know that this practice is simply a response to a larger problem: the wide disparity among SSA ALJs, whose records vary widely despite the fact that it is their job is to apply laws which are generally clear.
For example, it is well known to local practitioners that SSA's Jamaica, Queens office, has long had a reputation as being predisposed to deny the majority of Disability claims. Last year, several Social Security claimants filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that the ALJs in the Queens office are biased against applicants, with several judges who have systematically denied benefits by making legal and factual errors. Three of the Queens ALJs named in the suit rejected more than 60% of the Social Security claims they reviewed over five months in late 2010 and early 2011, while another rejected an astounding 81% of claims reviewed during the same time. In 2007, the Queens office had the fifth highest percentage nationwide of decisions sent back for rehearing upon further appeal.
On the other side of the spectrum is David B. Daugherty, an ALJ who retired over the summer amid an investigation into his record. At hearings held out of the Office of Hearings and Appeals in Huntington, W.Va., Daugherty approved benefits in 99.7% of his decisions in Fiscal Year 2010, including all 729 cases that he decided in the first six months of the year.
For Social Security disability claimants and the lawyers who represent them, the staggering disparity between judges is an unfortunate reality of the current claims system. The varying approval rates underscore the importance of attorney representation in the Social Security disability claims process. Our local judges exhibit a wide variety of results and after years of appearing before them, we know how to present a case slightly differently depending on what each judge expects or prefers. As experienced Social Security disability lawyers who have previously represented claimants before all the judges presently assigned to the hearing offices where we most commonly appear, we have learned how best to present the proof of disability and how best to prepare our clients to testify before the different Judges they might appear before. That knowledge and insight into the Judges crucial in winning a specific claim.
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