Posts Tagged With: Administrative law

A Judge Must Be Fair And Unbiased

All Social Security Administration (SSA) Admin Law Judges must fulfill their duties with fairness and impartiality. Statements and actions by any Judge that displays unfairness, prejudice, partiality, bias, misconduct, or discrimination undermine public trust and confidence in the administrative process. All SSA ALJs perform an essential role in ensuring that our administrative process is fair to claimants by conducting fair and unbiased hearings and issuing decisions for claimants who are dissatisfied with Agency determinations in claims arising under the Social Security Act.Background: Statements and actions by our adjudicators that display unfairness, prejudice, partiality, bias, misconduct, or discrimination undermine public trust and confidence in our administrative process. Our ALJs perform an essential role in ensuring that our administrative process is fair to claimants by conducting de novo, informal, non-adversarial hearings and issuing decisions for claimants who are dissatisfied with our determinations in claims arising under the Social Security Act. All adjudicators, including our ALJs, must fulfill their duties with fairness and impartiality. We have three separate processes to guard against unfairness in our hearing process: (1) The Appeals Council review process, under which we review hearing decisions in accordance with 20 CFR 404.969, 404.970, 416.1469 and 416.1470, to ensure that ALJs fairly and impartially consider claims for benefits; (2) the Division of Quality Service’s ALJ complaint investigation process; and (3) the civil rights investigation process for allegations of discrimination involving unfairness, prejudice, partiality, or bias based on race, color, national origin (including English language ability), religion, sex, sexual orientation, age, disability, or in retaliation for having previously filed a civil rights complaint. These three processes operate separately from one another and have different focuses. Claimants, parties, and the public may avail themselves of any or all three of the processes, as applicable, and all three processes may occur concurrently.

 

Social Security Ruling, SSR 13-1p; Titles II and XVI: Agency Processes for Addressing Allegations of Unfairness, Prejudice, Partiality, Bias, Misconduct, or Discrimination by Administrative Law Judges (ALJs).

SUMMARY: In accordance with 20 CFR 402.35(b)(1), the Commissioner of Social Security gives notice of Social Security Ruling, SSR-13-Xp. This Ruling explains the three separate vehicles we have for addressing complaints of unfairness, prejudice, partiality, bias, misconduct, or discrimination by an administrative law judge (ALJ). First, the Ruling describes the procedures that the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review’s (ODAR) Appeals Council follows when it receives such allegations in the context of claim adjudication. Next, the Ruling describes how ODAR’s Division of Quality Service reviews or investigates such complaints outside of the claim adjudication process to determine whether ODAR should take any administrative or disciplinary action with respect to the ALJ. Finally, the Ruling describes how the public may file with us complaints of discrimination based on race, color, national origin (including English language ability), religion, sex, sexual orientation, age, disability, or in retaliation for having previously filed a civil rights complaint against the agency. This Ruling supersedes our prior Notice of Procedures: Social Security Administration Procedures Concerning Allegations of Bias or Misconduct by Administrative Law Judges, 57 FR 49186 (October 30, 1992).

 

Through SSRs, we make available to the public precedential decisions relating to the Federal old-age, survivors, disability, supplemental security income, special veterans benefits, and black lung benefits programs. SSRs may be based on determinations or decisions made at all levels of administrative adjudication, Federal court decisions, Commissioner’s decisions, opinions of the Office of the General Counsel, or other interpretations of the law and regulations.

Although SSRs do not have the same force and effect as statutes or regulations, they are binding on all of our components. 20 CFR 402.35(b)(1).

This SSR will be in effect until we publish a notice in the Federal Register that rescinds it, or publish a new SSR that replaces or modifies it.

Purpose: This Ruling clarifies the three separate processes we have for addressing allegations of unfairness, prejudice, partiality, bias, misconduct, or discrimination by an ALJ.

Citations (Authority): Sections 205(b), 809(a), and 1631(c) of the Social Security Act, as amended; Regulations No. 4, subpart J, sections 404.940, 404.967, 404.969, and 404.970, Regulations No. 5, subpart A, sections 405.25 and 405.30, and Regulations No. 16, subpart P, sections 416.1440, 416.1440, 416.1467, 416.1469, and 416.1470.

 

In this Ruling, we explain these three different processes and emphasize that:

1. The Appeals Council has authority under 20 CFR 404.970 and 416.1470 to act when a party is dissatisfied with a hearing decision or dismissal of a hearing request. Even when a party does not request review, the Appeals Council may initiate review under 20 CFR 404.969 and 416.1469. The Appeals Council considers allegations of unfairness, prejudice, partiality, or bias by ALJs under the standards for review in 20 CFR 404.970 and 416.1470. The Appeals Council may also consider objections from a party stating why a new hearing should be held before another ALJ pursuant to 20 CFR 404.940 and 416.1440. In evaluating such allegations, the Appeals Council considers only the evidence contained in the claimant’s administrative record. The Appeals Council’s process is the only process set forth herein that allows a claimant to obtain a remedy on the claim for benefits.

 

2. The Division of Quality Service may review and, if warranted, investigate any complaints against an ALJ, including allegations of unfairness, prejudice, partiality, bias, or misconduct. Under this process, the Division of Quality Service evaluates allegations to determine whether it is necessary to recommend administrative or disciplinary action against an ALJ.

3. Individuals who allege discrimination based on their race, color, national origin (including English language ability), religion, sex, sexual orientation, age, disability, or in retaliation for having previously filed a civil rights complaint, may also file a separate discrimination complaint with us using our civil rights complaint process.

Policy Interpretation

Allegations of Unfairness, Prejudice, Partiality, Bias, or Misconduct Evaluated in the Appeals Council Claims Review Process

The ALJ’s decision is subject to Appeals Council review under 20 CFR 404.970 and 416.1470 if the claimant or other party or his or her representative timely requests review of the ALJ’s decision. The Appeals Council may also review the ALJ’s decision on its own motion under 20 CFR 404.969 and 416.1469.

The Appeals Council will grant a party’s request for review and issue a decision or remand a case when:

* There appears to be an abuse of discretion by the ALJ;

* There is an error of law;

* The action, findings or conclusions of the ALJ are not supported by substantial evidence;

* There is a broad policy or procedural issue that may affect the general public interest; or

* There is new and material evidence submitted that relates to the period on or before the ALJ’s hearing decision, and review of the case shows that the ALJ’s actions, findings or conclusions are contrary to the weight of the evidence currently of record.

 

Under our regulations, an ALJ must not conduct a hearing if he or she is prejudiced or partial with respect to any party or has any interest in the matter pending for decision. A claimant or other party to the hearing who objects to the ALJ who will conduct the hearing must notify the ALJ at his or her earliest opportunity. The ALJ will then decide whether to proceed with the hearing or to withdraw. If the ALJ does not withdraw, the claimant or other party to the hearing may, after the hearing, present objections to the Appeals Council as to reasons why the hearing decision should be revised or a new hearing should be held before another ALJ.

If, in conjunction with a request for review, the Appeals Council receives an allegation of ALJ unfairness, prejudice, partiality, or bias, the Appeals Council will review the claimant’s allegations and hearing decision under the abuse of discretion standard. We will find an abuse of discretion when an ALJ’s action is erroneous and without any rational basis, or is clearly not justified under the particular circumstances of the case, such as where there has been an improper exercise, or a failure to exercise, administrative authority. For example, if the record shows that the ALJ failed to conduct a full and fair hearing by refusing to allow the claimant to testify or cross-examine witnesses, we will find that an abuse of discretion has occurred. An abuse of discretion may also occur where there is a failure to follow procedures required by law.

 

An ALJ also abuses his or her discretion if the evidence in the record shows that the ALJ failed to recuse himself or herself from a case in which he or she was prejudiced or partial with respect to a particular claim or claimant, or had an interest in the matter pending for decision. In this instance, we will remand the case to another ALJ for a new hearing or revise the ALJ’s decision pursuant to 20 CFR 404.940 and 416.1440.

–This is a summary of a Federal Register article originally published on the page number listed below–

Notice of Social Security Ruling (SSR).

Citation: “78 FR 6168”

Document Number: “Docket No. SSA 2012-0071”

Federal Register Page Number: “6168”

“Notices”

Copyright: (c) 2013 Federal Information & News Dispatch, Inc.
Categories: Social Security Benefits | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Social Security Administration Refuses To Tell Claimants the Name of The Judge Who Will Hear Their Case

Social Security Administration Refuses To Tell Claimants The Name Of The Judge Who Will Hear Their Case
by London Steverson on Tuesday, January 1, 2013 at 9:27pm ·

Something rotten has been developing throughout 2012 in connection with assigning Social Security Administrative Law Judges (ALJ) to disability hearings. The Social Security Administration (SSA) has refused to inform the claimant and his or her representative of the identity of the judge who will be presiding at their hearing. In many SSA Hearing Offices across the USA the claimant is no longer being told the identity of the administrative law judge before the hearing. The Social Security Administration claims that certain representatives have been engaging in the clever practice of “judge shopping” or “forum shopping”.  It appears that most of the  “shopping” has taken place in the practice of video hearings. In a video hearing the claimant appears in a Hearing Room in a city near his home in front of a large television screen and the judge is in another city in another hearing room with his own television screen. The hearing is conducted by means of a video telephone conference. There is considerable speculation as to whether this practice actually constitutes due process of law. The claimant never sits in the same room with a real, living and breathing judge. Also, there has been must disagreement as to whether a judge can adequately determine the credibility and the demeanor of a witness over a television screen.

This is how “judge shopping” works.

(Read more at https://www.amazon.com/author/cgachall.blogspot.com)

When an attorney representative learns the name of the administrative law judge, he or she objects to the hearing by video if they want to get another judge assigned. Claimants try to avoid judges that have a record of denying the majority of their cases. On the other hand, they leap at the chance to try a case before a judge considered lenient. That means the judge has a reputation for granting benefits in most of his cases.

Whether you get paid early in the Social Security disability benefits process depends primarily on whether you get assigned the right ALJ. That’s right; it comes down to “the luck of the draw”. That is, unless your representative is skilled in the art of judge shopping. The most extreme types of ALJs occupy both ends of the spectrum. There are some who will reverse and grant benefits to 200 or more claimants a month without holding a hearing. They make what are called “on-the-record” decisions.

Then there are the ALJs who treat every case as a Dred Scott Decision. They over litigate the case. If they find any issue that was not disposed of by the State Disability Determination Service (DDS), they will declare that the case is not ripe for review and not ready for a hearing before an ALJ. Then they will remand the case to the DDS for a finding on that issue. Such a maneuver can add more than 6 months to the already long processing time. Or they might decide that the most recent medical examinations in the record are over one year old and order that you be examined again before scheduling a hearing. Both types of ALJs may even exist in the same hearing office.

While judge shopping is not technically something outside of the prerogatives of a claimant, the practice of shopping for the right ALJ has created havoc with the Social Security Administration’s ability to process its cases. The back log of cases waiting to be heard is long and is getting longer. Many claimants have to wait for an extended period, sometimes 5 years or more, just to sit down in front of an administrative law judge. In the past judge shopping only occurred with administrative law judges who had a low case approval rate, and attorneys and para-legal representatives tried to legally avoid them.

To fight this nuisance practice, the Social Security Administration has responded with a  “policy” of refusing to identify the ALJ until the day before or, in some cases, the day of the hearing. Some frustrated lawyers have used the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) to request the identity of the judge. The Social Security Administration has refused citing the Act’s exemption language, and specifically citing two exemptions. The exemptions deal with personal issues and criminal proceedings.

Since no one is seeking personal data on administrative law judges (date of birth, educational history, work history, etc), and typically, Social Security Disability hearings do not involve anything remotely criminal, the exemptions are likely misplaced. Until a ruling is made on the issue, though, the administrative law judge assignment remains a mystery and a bump in the road for the Social Security Disability claimant and his or her attorney representative.

(Read more at https://www.amazon.com/author/cgachall.blogspot.com)

From a game of “Musical Chairs” to “Guess Who’s Coming To Court”. First, the claimants started to shop for the “right” judge to hear their case; then the Social Security Administration started to withhold the identity of the judge assigned the case until the day of the hearing. This would almost be comical if the stakes were not so high. The Disability Determination Process should be transparent and adhere to the highest principles of fundamental legal due process that American citizens have a right to expect from their Government. The SSA should not play ‘cat-n-mouse’ with the name of the judge. Such childish behavior does not generate respect for the legal system or the disability process.

Categories: Social Security Benefits | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Social Security Administration Keeps Claimants In The Dark.

(Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue)

Social Security Administration Keeps Claimants In The Dark.

Today’s unprecedented economic crisis is bringing into sharp focus Social Security’s role as the backbone of the country’s retirement security, as well as the irresponsibility of former President George W. Bush’s policies in regard to this critical program.

Part of the Bush legacy that Astrue has continued are personnel and labor relations policies that hobble agency staff and undermine SSA’s ability to fulfill its duty to the American public. For example, Commissioner Astrue has implemented a policy prohibiting SSA employees from advising SSA claimants regarding their benefit election options. Because benefit election options, such as month of election, impact the eventual amount of benefits received, this prohibition deprives SSA claimants of advice and information that is important to their claims.

 Commissioner Astrue has also disadvantaged unrepresented claimants in disability hearings by not providing sufficient staff to explain new electronic processes to them, such as their electronic disability file, and has contributed to the disability backlog by prematurely implementing electronic processes, such as the “iclaims” program, before they have been fully developed. 

Commissioner Astrue created national hearing centers, apart from hearing offices, in circumvention of SSA’s obligations to the AALJ/IFPTE. This has resulted in one of the highest and costliest supervisory/managerial ratios in SSA. In establishing national hearing centers, where only video hearings can be conducted, Commissioner Astrue has deprived claimants of due process  by unduly encouraging them to waive in-person hearings in favor of video hearings. Commissioner Astrue has also contributed to the backlog of  disability cases by creating a work environment for SSA employees that is hostile to efficiency and effectiveness.  

 Commissioner Astrue has demonstrated a callous disregard for the Social Security Act by encouraging undue haste in making judicial decisions in disability cases and discouraging quality, thereby adversely affecting the American taxpayer because each disability case is valued at $250,000. Moreover, he has eliminated proof of age and proof of citizenship, which will likely result in an increase of fraud and beneficiary overpayments. In addition, he has reduced the processing of integrity workloads, such as redeterminations and Continuing Disability Reviews. This has resulted in billions of dollars of overpayments.

 At the core of Bush’s approach was the appointment of high-level agency officials committed to his anti-Social Security strategy.

 (AFL-CIO statement March 03, 2009)

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Violence Against Social Security Judges Increasing.

       The PowerPoint released by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the co-chairs of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (“The Deficit Commission”), said we should “Reform Social Security for its own sake, not for deficit reduction.”
Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit. Not now, not ever. However it has everything to do with political theater and public disinformation.
SocialSecurity is a political football, and now we are beginning the political Super Bowl Season.
Critics of Social Security have frequently made alarming claims about the future of the system to support calls for “reform”. Opportunists are posturing and trying to humanize the Social Security Administration (SSA). In order to do that the first group they sieze upon to spot light are the Administrative Law Judges(ALJ) at SSA, the 1300-1400 judges who decide disability cases.So now the SSA and its programs are at center stage of the public political debate. An avalanche of news articles have been triggered. One Associated Pressarticle about violence against SSA ALJs became the most frequently Email-ed article on Yahoo within 48 hours of publication two days ago. However, the article can be very misleading without some insider background information.The public is being manipulated with these articles. These articles are a diversion. They seek to make the judges appear as victims, while it is the American public who are being victimized. The judges are gatekeepers for the Social Security Trust Fund. To understand how and why read “socialNsecurity, Confessions of a Social Security Judge” at http://www.judgelondonsteverson.com.An ABA Journal article date May 18, 2012  found at  http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/defendant_told_others_of_urge_to_kill_judge_and_wait_with_a_gun_plea_docume/ told of a chilling incident in Tennessee. (I attended a Robert Crossley Bar Review Course in Knoxville, TN in 1977.)

A Tennessee man armed with a 9 mm semi-automatic pistol waited outside the offices of an administrative Law Judge (ALJ) last February, but the judge never emerged, according to a federal document supporting a plea in the case.

The man Roy Kenneth Wade Jr., was angry because the judge, K. Dickson Grissom, had denied Wade’s application for Social Security benefits, the Knoxville News reports. Wade was hospitalized after telling mental health professionals about the incident, as well as his continued desire to kill the judge, according to the document filed in Knoxville federal court by Assistant U.S. Attorney Melissa Kirby.

After his release from the hospital, Wade told federal agents he didn’t know whether he will kill Grissom, but if he did, he would save a round to shoot himself.

Wade confessed this week to a charge of threatening to murder a federal judge and will be sentenced later this year, the story says.

WASHINGTON – Judges who hear Social Security disability cases are facing a growing number of violent threats from claimants angry over being denied benefits or frustrated at lengthy delays in processing claims.

An AP article “Violence Against Social Security Judges” could have been written 10 or even 20 years ago. Why now? The incidents cited are over 10 years old. The incidents of violence have not increased, only the threats. The threats are commonplace and go with the job.

The number one complain in disability cases in back pain. The second most common complain is a mental inpairment. Many of these claimants are seriously mentally impaired; some are certifiably insane. They talk out of their heads; and , they make threats. The ALJ is the first and sometimes only embodiment of the SSA and the Federal Governmant, so they make threats against them. But they have no means or opportunity to carry out the threats. So, by and large the threats are harmless.

Some judges will not hold a hearing without an armed Federal Protective Service officer in the hearing room. Not me. I would postpone the hearing first. I only had to do that once in my entire career as an ALJ.

Judges in Illinois were carrying guns to work in their brief cases 15 and 20 years ago. They probably still are today. The ones that I knew about, had permits to carry a fire arm. The state and the city fire arm licensing authorities must have been satisfied that there is and was a valid threat to their safety.

I have been threated. Attorneys representing claimants have been threated in my courtroom. I have heard things like “if I loose my benefits, I will kill you”. That was said by a Mexican gang member with tear drops tatoos on his face and neck to an attorney in my court room.

I never let them know where I lived. I did not give out my home address. After work, I was always cautious and vigilant in the parking lot. We had to park in the same lot as the claimants. They knew our cars.

I never went straight home after work. I drove around and made sure no one was following me.

I lived less than one mile from the Downey Hearing Office. I was prepared to meet violence at the office but not at home. I was a military veteran, so danger and threats went with the job. However, my family was not to be put at risk. If I was going to be shot, it would be at the office, not at home. If a vengeful claimant was going to blow up something it was going to be the office, not my home. An Oklahoma City type of attack was acceptable, but not violence at my private residence where my wife and 3 little children lived.

The AP reporter acknowledged that while no judges were harmed this year, there have been past incidents. The first example cited was that of a female judge in the Los Angeles Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR). She was hit over the head with a chair during a hearing. That is not exactly accurate, but I am familiar with the incident. The ALJ made some fundamental mistakes. The incident was avoidable. The judge deviated too far from standard procedure.

The ALJ in question had been transferred from the Long Beach Office of Hearings and Appeals (OHA) to the Downtown Los Angeles ODAR. She conducted the hearing in a formal manner. She wore a black robe; she sat at the judge’s bench; she remained distant and removed from the claimant who was seated at the claimant’s table which was below and separated from the judge’s bench. Aside from the judge and the court reporter there were only two other people in the hearing room. Those were the claimant and her adult daughter. the claimant was not represented by an attorney and no attorney was present.

The claimant was alleging a mental impairment. She claimed that she could not engage in work on a consistent basis because her mental impairment prevented her from maintaining persistence, concentration, and pace. The ALJ was not convinced and something about her questions and her demeanor must have relayed that message to the claimant and her daughter. The judge was going to deny her claim. The conversational exchanges became heated. So, the ALJ closed the hearing and left the hearing room. Then she made a fundamental error.

The judge left the room, removed her robe, came back to the hearing room, and sat down at the table with the claimant and her daughter. It is not clear why she felt this little friendly chat was necessary. She had already as much as told the claimant that she was not going to win her case. She was not going to receive disability benefits. The conversation became heated. The claimant’s daughter became excited and irate. The judge jumped up and tried to leave the hearing room and the daughter picked up a chair and threw it at the judge. This was predictable. The judge lowered the barrier and put herself on the same level with the claimant.

This is not the kind of violence that most judges are afraid of. Most judges would not have put themselves in this kind of a risky situation. This was practically an invitation to precipitate an incident. Moreover, usually the cases are so tightly scheduled, one after another, that most judges would not have had time to have a nice little touchie-feelie chat with a mentally deranged claimant who did not have a lawyer present to represent her.

http://www.amazon.com/socialNsecurity-Confessions-Social-Security-Judge/dp/1449569757

WASHINGTON – Judges who hear Social Security disability cases are facing a growing number of violent threats from claimants angry over being denied benefits or frustrated at lengthy delays in processing claims.

There were at least 80 threats to kill or harm administrative law judges or staff over the past year — an 18 percent increase over the previous reporting period, according to data collected by the agency.

The data was released to the Association of Administrative Law Judges and made available to The Associated Press.

One claimant in Albuquerque, N.M., called his congressman’s office to say he was going to “take his guns and shoot employees” in the Social Security hearing office. In Eugene, Ore., a man who was denied benefits said he is “ready to join the Taliban and hurt some people.” Another claimant denied benefits told a judge in Greenville, S.C., that he was a sniper in the military and “would go take care of the problem.”

“I’m not sure the number is as significant as the kind of threats being made,” said Randall Frye, a judge based in Charlotte, N.C., and the president of the judges’ union. “There seem to be more threats of serious bodily harm, not only to the judge but to the judge’s family.”

Fifty of the incidents came between March and August, including that of a Pittsburgh claimant who threatened to kill herself outside the hearing office or fly a plane into the building like a disgruntled tax protester did earlier this year at the Internal Revenue Service building in Austin, Texas.

A Senate subcommittee is expected to hear testimony on Monday at a field hearing in Akron, Ohio, about the rising number of threats, as well as the status of the massive backlog in applications for disability benefits, which are available to people who can’t work because of medical problems.

Nearly 2 million people are waiting to find out if they qualify for benefits, with many having to wait more than two years to see their first payment.

Judges say some claimants become desperate after years of fighting for money to help make ends meet.

“To many of them, we’re their last best hope for getting relief in the form of income and medical benefits,” said Judge Mark Brown, a vice president of the judge’s union and an administrative law judge hearing cases in St. Louis.

While no judges were harmed this year, there have been past incidents: A judge in Los Angeles was hit over the head with a chair during a hearing and a judge in Newburgh, N.Y., was punched by a claimant when he showed up for work.

In January, a gunman possibly upset about a reduction in his Social Security benefits killed a security guard during a furious gunbattle at a Nevada federal courthouse.

About 1,400 administrative law judges handle appeals of Social Security disability claims at about 150 offices across the country. Many are in leased office space rather than government buildings.

Brown said the agency provides a single private security guard for each office building that houses judges. Frye said he has sought more security and a review of the policy that keeps guards out of hearing rooms. He said Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue has promised to look into it.

Social Security Administration spokeswoman Trish Nicasio said the agency continually evaluates the level and effectiveness of office security and makes changes as needed.

“We are taking appropriate steps to protect our employees and visitors while still providing the level of face-to-face service the public expects and deserves,” Nicasio said.

Visitors and their belongings are screened before entering hearing offices and hearings room, she said, and reception desks are equipped with duress alarms to notify the guard immediately of any disturbance.

Categories: Social Security Judges | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

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