Would Meaningful Reforms Restore Dignity and Efficacy To The Social Security System?
Nine percent of the judges who hear appeals grant benefits 90% of the time, costing taxpayers tens of billions.
The (Social Security Administration) judicial system is not run by anyone with real judicial experience. It is at the mercy of unelected bureaucrats whose only concern is how many cases each judge can churn out and how fast he or she can do it. An adversarial system with both sides represented and all evidence on the table is the best way to root out fraud and ensure that legitimate claims are paid.
(Below is an Extract from the book, “socialNsecurity, Confessions of a Social Security Judge”.)An Interview of Judge D. RANDALL FRYE, President Association of Social Security Administrative Law Judges (AALJ) JAN. 19, 2014
(Above pictured is D. Randall Frye, on the right, with Marilyn Zahm)
The Association Of Administrative Law Judges(AALJ), union representing administrative law judges, says judges are required to decide 500 to 700 cases a year in an effort to reduce the hearings backlog. The union says the requirement is an illegal quota that leads judges to sometimes award benefits they might otherwise deny just to keep up with the flow of cases. according to a federal lawsuit filed by the judges’ union in April.The Social Security Administration says the agency’s administrative law judges (ALJs) should decide 500 to 700 disability cases a year. The agency calls the standard a productivity goal, but a lawsuit filed in April 2013 by the Social Security Judges against the Commissioner and the Agency claims it is an illegal quota that requires judges to decide an average of more than two cases per workday.
‘‘When the goals are too high, the easy way out is to pay the case,’’ said Randall Frye, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges (AALJ) and a judge in Charlotte, N.C. ‘‘Paying the case is a decision that might be three pages long. When you deny benefits, it’s usually a 15- or 20-page denial that takes a lot more time and effort.’’
The lawsuit raises serious questions about the integrity of the disability hearing process by the very people in charge of running it. It comes as the disability program faces serious financial problems.
The agency denies there is a case quota for judges and says the standard is a productivity goal.“I find it interesting that there is so much wringing of the hands about a judge who pays almost 100% of his cases, as if the agency didn’t know about it, as if the agency wasn’t complicit in it, as if the agency didn’t encourage it,” said Marilyn Zahm, a Social Security judge in Buffalo, NY who is an executive vice president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges (AALJ), the judges’ union.
Judge Zahm had a lot more to say in an interview in October 2009. (Read the entire interview starting at page 430 in my book, socialNsecurity, available at http://www.amazon.com/SocialNsecurity-ebook/dp/B006VOQIKK
President Richard Nixon had his Enemies List. President George Bush had his Wanted List. President Barack Obama has his Kill List; and Linda de Soto has her “Hit List“. Lisa De Soto is the Deputy Commissioner for SSA/ODAR, the Social Security Administration’s Office of Disability and Adjudication Review. Deputy Commissioner Linda de Soto and Chief Administrative Law Judge Frank Cristaudo fabricated bogus charges against Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) and forced many into early retirement.
Former Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue, who took office in 2007, like every Commissioner before him tried his own brand of reform. He made changes to the Social Security Operating System.
Trying to reduce the Backlog, he tinkered with the personnel system. Mostly, he went after the ALJs. He blamed the ALJs for everything. He was a “blame the Judges first” man.
His reforms produced minor and temporary results. The Backlog was reduced for a moment in time. His programs to increase accountability and judicial turnover were a disaster.He removed good experienced ALJs and replaced them with new, inexperienced and easily manipulated ALJ recruits who could be told how to decide cases.
He had a formula for how many claimants should be granted benefits and how many should be denied. The new ALJs lack proper judicial temperament, and that is what Astrue was after.
He wanted to take away the judicial independence of the judges. It was a numbers game, and a highly volume business.
Along with Linda de Soto ,Astrue marked every ALJ with 15 to 20 years experience on the job for removal. Experienced and senior male judges were forced to retire so that less experienced radical feminist female judges could be installed as Chief ALJ in the Hearing Offices. This was most prevalent in California, in the SSA’s Ninth Region.
Linda DeSoto proudly bragged about the number of judges on her “Hit List” that she had to get rid of. At any one time there were 25 or more judges on her Hit List.
Judges were ordered to retire or resign. Any who refused were brought up on charges. The charges were flimsy and ridiculous; such as, receiving personal mail and magazines at the Office, using the OHA Office address on their official business cards (that were designed, ordered, and printed by the SSA Agency), storing pictures deemed inappropriate on their personal computers (pc), looking at inappropriate web sites during office hours or after hours, writing letters on obsolete stationary with SSA letterheads no longer in use, and using their titles (U. S. Administrative Law Judge) when signing personal letters. Judges’ offices were searched without their knowledge on weekends when they were not present. Judges’ phone conversations were monitored. Their privacy was invaded. Their computers were searched and seized without notice or warning. Some judges went to lunch and came back to the office to find their computers had been taken by Astrue’s henchmen. Judges were locked out of their personal offices. The locks to the main SSA work place were changed and ALJs were not given the new office key. Moreover, if any cases went to NLRB Hearings, the Agency suborned perjury, and disobeyed their own Agency Rules. Astrue’s policies were a disaster. He demoralized the ALJ corps, and morale among the judges plummeted. As a result the administrative staff was confused and frustrated. This atmosphere caused efficiency to suffer and increased the Backlog.
Judge Katherine Morgan ruled on disability cases for the SSA. She sued the SSA accusing her supervisors of age and gender discrimination and retaliating against her for filing complaints about her treatment.
Judge Katherine Morgan, one of seven judges in the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (SSA/ODAR) in Portland, said in the lawsuit filed Thursday, March 19th, in U.S. District Court in Portland that she was targeted by the office’s chief judge (CALJ)because of her age. She is 71.
“Chief Judge Fletcher repeatedly falsely accused Judge Morgan of time and attendance violations for documenting her time and attendance in exactly the same manner as the other judges, who were not accused,” the lawsuit says. “The discriminatory conduct directed at Judge Morgan by her fellow employees was known to and acquiesced in by her direct supervisor, Chief Judge Fletcher. The discriminatory conduct was directed at Judge Morgan by Chief Judge Fletcher was known to and acquiesced in by Regional Chief Judge (Carol) Sax, Chief Judge Fletcher’s direct supervisor. The discriminatory conduct was intentional, willful and malicious, entitling Judge Morgan to an award of punitive damages.”
The lawsuit did not specify how much money Morgan was seeking. She demanded a jury trial seeking damages for lost money, emotional pain, compensation allowed by law and other legal fees.
The lawsuit was filed on Morgan’s behalf by attorneys from the Portland law firm Norman, Hanson and DeTroy. One of her attorneys, Theodore Kirchner, declined through a member of his staff to respond.
A regional spokesman for the Social Security Administration, Roberto Medina, could not be reached for comment.
Maine’s offices of Disability Adjudication and Review routinely took longer to decide disability appeals than the national average and approved more disability claims than the national average, according Social Security Administration data compiled by the website www.disabilityjudges.com.
In the most recent fiscal year, Maine judges approved 53 percent of disability claim appeals, dismissed 24 percent of claims and denied 23 percent, according to the website’s statistics.
Morgan approved more appeals than any other judge in the Portland office. She approved 65 percent of disability claim appeals, dismissed 20 percent and denied 15 percent. She decided 148 cases from last Oct. 1 to March 11.
By comparison, Judge Fletcher approved 54 percent of appeals, dismissed 15 percent and denied 31 percent. He decided 48 cases in the same period.
Judge John Edwards approved the fewest appeals in the Portland office, with 35 percent approved, 30 percent dismissed and 34 percent denied. He decided 151 cases.
Using the Medical Vocational Grids or simply The Listings, until about 1995 every person in America who filed for Social Security Disability Benefits (SSI and SSID) and alleged a mental impairment because of drug or alcohol addiction was granted benefits. All the winos, alcoholics and misfits with the slightest mental impairment were conclusively presumed to be incapable of engaging in Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) and therefore were entitled to draw Social Security Benefits according to Social Security Regulations.
Those Regulations were contained in The Listings or The Grid. All SSA Judges were duty bound and required to follow them. Many healthy people who were injured and could not work were denied benefits when the drunks and derelicts of American society were granted benefits. It bordered on a public scandal.
The Regulations they followed were known as the Medical Vocational Grids or simply The Listings. They were not always logical; like a camel is a horse designed by a committee. The Listings were designed by Social Security scholars.
For instance, the bar to benefits approval was and still is lower for someone who doesn’t speak English, on the theory that it is difficult to work in America when you cannot speak English.
These guidelines (in The Listings) also do not give due consideration to actual labor market experience, dictating a looser approval standard for someone with only a high-school degree, even if the person has succeeded in the labor force for decades.
The framework (of The Listings) was developed in the late 1950s, for the previous generation’s workforce, and hasn’t been updated since 1978.
According to a well placed source high in the Social Security Administration’s Office of the Chief Administrative Law Judge, Lisa de Soto had stated that she had a list of 25 ALJs that she intended to get rid of. This was her “Hit List”. She set about her goal in a most vigorous manner.
A federal agency is required to follow its own regulations. This mean very little to Lisa de Soto and Frank Cristaudo. They have violated many SSA regulations concerning the discipline and removal of agency personnel.
Cristaudo and de Soto have brought charges against judges. Chief Judge Cristaudo has testified at Federal Labor Relations Administrative hearings designed to censure or remove judges. None of the charges against any of the judges have alleged poor performance as a judge, or dereliction of duty. No substantive charges have been brought against any judges. Instead, judges have been charged with, among other things, receiving personal mail at the office, misuse of a government computer, and saving pictures on their computers of persons other than immediate family members.
Frank Cristaudo has made a career of destroying other peoples’ careers. He tried running for public office in New Jersey and could not get elected. Some how he managed to get appointed an administrative law judge at the Social Security Administration. He could not conduct a proper hearing so someone appointed him as the Chief Judge. Who better to appoint chief judge than someone who cannot conduct a hearing? It is better to put such a person in an administrative position. That way he does not have to go near a court room. But in a rat race, the biggest rat always manages to winnow his way to the top.
Linda de Soto’s career had not bottomed out before joining SSA. She was the Social Security Administration’s General Counsel. She is an experienced attorney who has held a number of senior management positions in the private and federal sector. She specialized in procurement, bilateral and multilateral negotiations, conflict resolution and organizational change. Most recently, she was the Country Director for the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (AID) Office of Transition Initiatives in Nigeria. Before that, she served as the General Counsel of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency and as Deputy Assistant General Counsel for Contract and Commodity Management for the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) in Washington, D.C.
Not all judges are paid to judge. One-fifth of SSA’s judges do not hold hearings. That is one out of five judges who do not judge. Twenty percent of the judges on the SSA’s payroll do not conduct hearings. Some judges are allowed to carry a reduced work load. An an example, judges who are union representatives are not counted as full judges. They are counted as one fourth of a judge. If the average full-time judge is required to publish 60 decisions per month, then ALJs who are union representatives are only required to publish 12 to 15 decisions per month. All ALJs earn between $164,000.00 and $169,000.00 per year. That works out to roughly between $14,500.00 and $16,000.00 per month to decide 12 to 15 cases. That translates to loosely $1,250.00 per decision per month.
Some of these judges, paralegals, and legal secretaries once took their comfortable life-styles for granted, but not anymore. All of that has changed, since Lisa de Soto and Judge Frank Cristaudo started forcing judges into retirement. All of this has occurred at the same time as the American economy has taken a steep downturn. Judges have lost homes and families.
Many judges, lawyers, paralegals, administrative staff workers are finding out what it is like to be without a job. Many for the first time in their lives cannot find any work. To make matters worse, most of them are old people. They are loosing their jobs, homes, cars, cell phones, health insurance, and middle-class life styles never to be regained. At their ages no one will hire them. Summer vacations and having dinner out have become distant memories.
Several current and former Administrative Law Judges (“ALJs”) testified before Congress that the Social Security Administration is purportedly pushing ALJs to award benefits (or grant benefits) in an effort to reduce the rather large backlog of disability claims in the system. This further feeds the misperception that ALJs are approving claims willy-nilly left and right. Just as there are Judges who have high approval rates or grant rates (the percentage of claims approved out of all claims disposed), there are Judges who have extremely low grant rates and deny the vast majority of claims that they decide.
http://www.socialsecurity.gov/appeals/DataSets/Archive/archive_data_reports.html. [Update: the raw, unedited data can be found here in the archives for 2012: http://www.ssa.gov/appeals/DataSets/archive/archive_data_reports.html#ht=1].crunched the data from all Social Security disability claims decided in Fiscal Year 2012. The data was found here:
Age makes it more difficult to find a job. People who did everything right professionally have reached old age and find themselves on the verge of destitution. Middle level managers and accountants can not get interviews at McDonald’s for a job as a cashier.
Long years of experience are no longer an asset. The job skills that older workers have acquired are no longer needed in today’s job market. Employers today are looking for younger workers without health problems and who know how to use the many word-processing programs used to produce legal documents and client letters.
Richard Eggers is a 68 years old resident of Des Moines, Iowa. He was fired in July 2012 from his job as a customer service representative at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage because of an incident that occurred in 1963, over 50 years ago, according to the Des Moines Register. He put a cardboard cutout of a dime in a washing machine. He admits it was a stupid stunt, but he cannot believe that he was fired because of it 50 years later. Big banks have been firing older low-level employees like Eggers since new federal banking employment guidelines were enacted in May 2011 and new mortgage employment guidelines took hold in February, it was reported in the Des Moines Register.
The tougher standards are meant to clear out older executives and mid-level bank employees and anyone guilty of transactional crimes — such as identity theft and money laundering — but are being applied across the board against older employees.
Wells Fargo confirmed Eggers’ termination. “The expectations that have been placed on us and all financial institutions have never been higher,” said Wells Fargo spokeswoman Angela Kaipust.
Banks have fired thousands of workers nationally, said Natasha Buchanan, an attorney in Santa Ana, Calif., who has helped some of the workers regain their eligibility to be employed.
There is no government or industry data on the number of older bank workers fired due to criminal background checks.
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. provides a waiver process employees can follow to show they’re still fit to work at a bank despite a past criminal conviction, but it usually takes six months to a year to be approved. There is also a process for automatic waiver that works more quickly but is limited to people who were sentenced to less than year of jail time and never spent a day locked up. Eggers was jailed two days. Sadly, he doesn’t qualify. So he joins the ranks of the older unemployed who may never find another job.
America is fast becoming a land where there are no jobs for old people. Government employees from the Senior Executive Service to the lowliest General Service employee, along with Fortune 500 middle management executives, and super lawyers from multi-national law firms are being shown the door. America has more lawyers per capita than any other country in the world. Americans love to sue each other.
In the most litigation-happy country in the world, lawyers are being fired. Today’s recession is not like the recession of the 1930′s. Typically when the economy goes down, lawsuit filings go up, according to a former super lawyer who was let go from a prominent law firm. The only kind of legal filings that have gone up in this economy are bankruptcy cases. When the housing bubble bursted, the number of people filing for bankruptcy went through the roof. Lawsuit filings in general have gone down.
You may not feel old, but Social Security Regulations define who is an old person. Because of a vigorous and healthy life style, you might feel much younger than you are. Your chronological age could be 55, and your friends might flatter you by saying 55 today is the new 45. However, government and business managers have regulations that tell them whether you are an old person. According to those regulations, if you are age 55 or older, then you are an old person. You will not be considered approaching retirement age until you are 62.
Many Americans will not have a job after age 55. The American middle class has suffered a direct hit buy this recession. Social Security retirement benefits have become the number one retirement plan in America. Those under age 62 who are too young to collect retirement benefits are applying for Social Security Disability Benefits in record numbers.
The waiting time for a disability case to be decided may be as long as five years. In that period of time families have lost their homes, small business owners have lost their businesses, and ended up living on the streets using credit cards to buy food. Depression and anxiety are at an epidemic level.
The Obama Administration bailed out Wall Street, but not main street. Bankers and Wall Street traders are feeling no pain. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has said that he feels the pain of the older aged workers, who represent about 41 percent of the 12.8 million unemployed workers. Many of the chronic unemployed older people have given up and stopped looking for work. Their job skills have atrophied. Their business contacts have dried up. They have lost their homes and cannot afford descent apartments based on their Social Security Benefits and Food Stamp payments. As they struggle to survive on food stamps, credit cards and Social Security, without cars or cell phones, these older unemployed former middle-class workers are losing their dignity and some are even committing suicide.
Jane Durant is a 57 year old legal secretary at a large law firm in Pennsylvania. After spending 10 years at a smaller law firm, she took a job at a larger firm 11 years ago. In 2009 she was laid off when her law firm underwent a large reduction in force (RIF). Today she is still unemployed. She has exhausted her severance package, used up 99 weeks of unemployment benefits, and has been forced to dip into her retirement funds. She has cut back to one meal a day and has applied for food stamps. Her food stamp application was refused because she still had a small savings account. After 60 job interviews and no offers of even part-time work, she believes she is a victim of age discrimination.
Claude Davis was a California attorney living the good life trading up in real estate, going from a smaller house to a larger one. He was riding the real estate bubble. He bought his last house for over a million dollars with no money down and no interest with an adjustable rate mortgage for the first five years. At the end of five years he would be facing a large balloon payment that would come due. This was not the first time he had purchased a home under these terms. As long as he was working he expected to be able to come up with the cash. He never expected to lose his job. He thought that legal jobs were recession proof. Then the unexpected happened. He was terminated. For a while he managed to get by doing small contracts and by dipping into his retirement funds. When the balloon mortgage payment came due, he was not able to make the payment. He lost his house and his middle class life style. He thinks he will never be able to get another legal job like his last one because he can no longer work the 12 to 14 hour days that are required to get ahead in most law firms. Younger more recent law school graduates are grabbing all the starting legal jobs. Claude Davis is 55 years old and he believes that he also is a victim of age discrimination.
Their misfortune has broader consequences for society as a whole as well as for America’s standing in the world. These former lawyers, administrative law judges, paralegals, corporate executives, and small business owners who are struggling to survive in this hostile economy may be the canaries in the coal mine for America. Their social and economic conditions will have broader and more far-reaching consequences for America and could signal that we are slipping into a welfare society and a less prestigious nation.
In our weakening, job-starved economy what can older unemployed former workers expect in the next 4 years? Does it matter who is elected President?
How would older unemployed Americans answer the question “Are you better off now than you were 4 years ago”?
Governor Martin O’Malley, (D-Md.) an a speaker at the Democratic National Convention said “NO!” He said the country is worse off, and by implication that older Americans are worse off. Gov. O’Malley spoke during a televised interview on CBS Sunday.
What applies to the general population, goes double for the older unemployed American workers. What have the last 4 years brought? Since November 2008, national unemployment has gone from 6.8% to8.3%. Unemployment for old Americans still looking for work is estimated to be above 33% and still climbing.
Since November 2008 the Poverty Level in the USA has gone from 13% to 15%, and that is also rising at a breath-taking pace. In the last 4 years the numbers of Food Stamp recipients have increased from 30.9 million to 44.7 million.
That number would be greater if every older American who applied were granted Food Stamps.But, not everyone who applies receives Food Stamps. Take for an example Jane Durant the 57 year old legal secretary in Pennsylvania who was turned down because had not used up all of her savings account. When she becomes completely destitute, she will qualify for Food Stamps.
That will contribute to a Federal Debt that was $10 Trillion four years ago, but has grown to $16 Trillion today. And the price of a gallon of gas has almost doubled at the pump.
A second wave of mortgage foreclosures has hit nationwide like a giant tsunami. In Maryland alone 20,000 new foreclosures were filed in the 1st Quarter of 2012. More than 37million homes have been lost to foreclosure in the last 4 years. The States with the highest foreclosure rates are CA, FL, NV, OH, PA, and Md..
Since November 2008 the Poverty Level in the USA has gone from 13% to 15%, and that is also rising at a breath-taking pace. The poorest city in America is Redding, PA where the Poverty Rate is 41.3%. According to the U. S. Census Bureau the Poverty Rate is 33% in Detroit, MI; and 30% in Buffalo, NY; 28% in Cincinnati,OH; 27% in Cleveland,OH; 27% in Miami, FL; 27% in St. Louis, MO; 26% in El Paso, TX; 26% in Milwauki, WI; and 25% in Philadelphia, PA.
Poverty and unemployment, along with escalating high school drop out rates are fueling crime across America. On the first day of school in Baltimore, MD a student was shot in the cafeteria with a shot gun. Police shot 8 innocent people on their way to work in New York City in front of the Empire State Building. There were mass shootings at a movie theater in Denver, CO and at a Sikh Temple in Milwaukee, WI. And Chicago,IL has had a record 31% increase in murders this year.
What is driving the American economy over the cliff? What is turning the American Dream into a real nightmare for older Americans who cannot find work? Who will save America and old unemployed Americans from poverty? These are people who were the “middle class” for the first 50 years of their lives.
Older Americans are looking for a white knight who can save them from spending their senior years in poverty. They want someone who will avoid the fiscal cliff. Will it be a white knight with black stripes, or will it be a black knight with white stripes?
After last weeks blistering appraisal by the Federal Reserve Bank Chairman, Ben Bernake, of the amount of damage the high unemployment has inflicted on our economy and that it will last for many years to come, is there any wonder that old people feel hopeless, betrayed, and mad as hell?
The wisdom in working for the federal government at the highest levels has become akin to that of marrying King Henry VIII — it’s great to be asked, but there’s always that likelihood that eventually, your head will roll.
To all parties involved in a trial, the slam of a gavel should indicate that justice has been served. Unfortunately, this is often not the case with Social Security Disability (SSDI and SSI) appeals. A system designed to serve society’s vulnerable has morphed into a benefit bonanza that costs taxpayers billions of dollars more than it should. The disability trust fund will become insolvent in 2016, and Congress would be wise to begin much needed reform.
A disability applicant whose claim is rejected during the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) first two stages ( before State Disability Determination Services) can appeal the decision to administrative-law judges (ALJ). These judges must impartially balance the claims of the applicant against the interests of taxpayers.
Over the past decade judicial impartiality has declined significantly, as many administrative-law judges uncritically approve most claims. In 2008 judges on average approved about 70% of claims before them, according to the Social Security Administration. Nine percent of judges approved more than 90% of benefit requests that landed on their desks.
Do nine out of every 10 applicants appealing denied claims need societal support? There are reasons for skepticism. The data show that judges who are generous in granting benefits are consistently generous over time—which is suspicious, since each year they should hear a random set of new cases. The more discerning judges—those who award benefits less than 90% of the time—are more unpredictable from year to year.
Driven to reduce a huge backlog of disability claims, Social Security is pushing judges to award benefits to people who may not deserve them, several current and former judges told Congress Thursday June 27, 2013.
Judge Larry Butler, an administrative law judge (ALJ) from Fort Myers, Fla., called the system “paying down the backlog.”
(For a complete explanation of the term “paying down the backlog” see socialNsecurity by Judge L. Steverson, USALJ (Ret.)
The approval rates among ALJs can be quite arbitrary. One ALJ might reverse 9 out of 10 cases and another might deny 9 out of 10 cases. It all depends on the luck of the draw.
There is a practice called “Paying Down The Back Log”. This is where a judge just reverses every case on his docket and grants benefits to the claimant. Some ALJs have been known to do this with no regard at all for the merits of the case. Judges have been known to pay 200 cases or more on-the –record in this manner. Sometimes the Commissioner will take action to stop them. Other times he does not. (Steverson, Judge London, socialNsecurity, p. 19)
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is investigating why many judges have high approval rates for claims already rejected twice by field offices or state agencies. Two current and two former judges spoke at a subcommittee hearing.
The number of people receiving Social Security disability benefits has increased by 44 percent over the past decade, pushing the trust fund that supports the program to the brink of insolvency.
Social Security officials say the primary reason for the increase is a surge in baby boomers who are more prone to disability as they age. Deputy Social Security Commissioner Glenn Sklar noted that the vast majority of disability claims are initially denied.
“I think the data kind of speaks for itself,” Sklar told lawmakers.
To qualify for benefits, people are supposed to have disabilities that prevent them from working and are expected to last at least a year or result in death.
According to Social Security data, there were errors in 22 percent of the cases decided in 2011, Sklar said. He said some errors were procedural and did not necessarily result in incorrect decisions.
“The true wrong rate would be less than 10 percent,” Sklar said.
Nearly 11 million disabled workers, spouses and children get Social Security disability benefits. That compares with 7.6 million a decade ago. The average monthly benefit for a disabled worker is $1,130.
An additional 8.3 million people get Supplemental Security Income, a separately funded disability program for low-income people.
None of the judges who testified spoke of being specifically ordered to award claims. Three said they had been pressured to decide cases without fully reviewing medical files.
If the judges with award rates topping 90% are removed from the data, the rate of denial increases by 2%-3% annually. That amounts to 98,000 claims from 2005-11. Assuming an average lifetime award of $250,000, taxpayers would have saved $23 billion over those six years had the worst judges left the bench. If we lower the threshold to exclude judges with award rates north of 85%, these savings increase to $41 billion.
Former Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue, who took office in 2007, made much-needed changes. Incompetent incumbents saw their influence diluted by new judges drawn from fresh candidate lists. Judicial decisions are now randomly reviewed to ensure that the court remains impartial and fair to taxpayers. Judges were limited to hearing 1,000 cases a year (the figure has since been lowered to 700), and individuals are allowed only one disability application at a time.
Mr. Astrue’s reforms have produced good results. In 2011 judges with award rates exceeding 90% heard a mere 4% of all cases, a 63.6% decline from 2008. But Mr. Astrue’s term expired in 2013, and these changes can easily be undone, either intentionally by future administrators, or unintentionally as bad habits slip back into the system.
His program to increase accountability and judicial turnover should be made permanent. Congress should also institute 15-year term limits for judges, who currently enjoy lifetime tenure, to ensure that fresh legal minds are joining the stale judicial aristocracy. A term of a decade and a half is long enough to insulate judges and prevent undue political influence.
The system faces a huge backlog, made worse by claimants who play adjudication roulette, filing and then withdrawing appeals in hopes of drawing a generous judge. Congress can limit this gamesmanship by allowing only one application per claimant in a three-year period. Because judges must marshal more documentation for a denial than an approval, they have an incentive to grant benefits to keep the system chugging along. The agency can fix this by further limiting the number of cases each judge must decide to 500 from 700.
The system is further complicated because even if a claimant has legal counsel, the judge must advocate on the claimant’s behalf. This dual role should be ended. Most claimants—85%—now have third-party representation. These professionals should be held responsible for getting supporting materials into court expeditiously and completely so the record can be closed in a timely manner.
Even under better legal rules, judges will still face rigid and outdated guidelines for granting benefits. The framework they must follow—known as the Medical Vocational Grid (known as The Listings)—is formulaic to the point of senselessness. For instance, the bar to benefits approval is lower for someone who doesn’t speak English, on the theory that it is difficult to find a job without the language. But that English rule is also applied to claimants from Puerto Rico, where the language of business is Spanish.
These guidelines (in The Listings) also do not give due consideration to actual labor market experience, dictating a looser approval standard for someone with only a high-school degree, even if the person has succeeded in the labor force for decades.
The framework (of The Listings) was developed in the late 1950s, for the previous generation’s workforce, and hasn’t been updated since 1978. Decades ago workers ages 50 or 55 might have been considered retiring, but this is no longer generally the case. Novel job-training programs also make it easier than ever for workers to move into new fields and make up for low levels of education, and new disability criteria would account for these changes.
These solutions would begin to deliver meaningful reform to Social Security disability awards. They can restore dignity and efficacy to a troubled system.
(BY Mark J. Warshawsky And Ross A. Marchand, March 8, 2015)
(Mr. Warshawsky is a visiting scholar at the Mercatus Center of George Mason University and a former member of the Social Security Advisory Board from 2006 to 2012. Mr. Marchand is a first-year economics graduate student at George Mason University.)