May 1st, 2012: An independent study of administrative law judges (ALJ) who work for the Social Security Administration is underway, with findings due out next year in 2013. The review is being conducted by the Administrative Conference of the United States. This government-policy think-tank is likely to issue new policy recommendations to judges on how to handle Social Security Disability cases. These policy changes could have an impact on attorneys and para-legals, who practice before the Social Security Bar.
The Social Security Administration ordered the study. There have been reports of gross inconsistencies in rulings from judge to judge. Critics have pointed out that over 100 judges approve more than 85% of all cases that come before them, while one judge in Tennessee approves over 99% of the cases that he hears. Conversely, there is a judge in Texas who only approves 13 cases out of every 100.
Another factor which has sparked this investigation is the gross disparity in the length of hearings, that is, the time a Social Security claimant actually spends in front of a judge. After waiting for an average of 2 years for their day in court, most claimants spend less than an hour in an actual hearing. Most cases last about an hour. Some judges were found to make snap decisions in just a few minutes. There are reports that some judges simply flip a coin to decide whether a claimant wins or loses. Since the judges do not even write their own decisions, some decision writers have complained that the judges’ decision writing instructions consist of nothing more than a “smiley face’ or a “frowning face” on a piece of paper. And the worst case of all are the reports of judges who decide over 200 cases a month without even bothering to hold a hearing. They simply “pay the cases” to get rid of them. This is called “paying down the backlog” in the language of the Social Security Office. The backlog of over 770,000 disability claimants could be a factor in the rapid decisions.
For years attorneys have been known to forum shop. They search for Hearing Offices that have a high degree of reversals of cases on appeal; or, they search for judges known to be more likely to grant benefits.The Social Security Administration has halted the process of informing applicants of which judge will preside over their hearings. This practice will prevent SSD attorneys from “shopping” for a lenient judge.
However, if judges become stricter in their approval standards, it could prompt more applicants to seek professional representation to increase their chances of being one of the 10,000,000 Americans who will receive their share of the $130,000,000,000 in SSD claims in 2013. This could help SSD attorneys and representatives increase their number of clients in the long run.
The recommendations that result from the study are scheduled for release in November 2012. The new procedures will be non-binding, but are geared toward refining and leveling the approval process.