By James Pavisian, Attorney
On June 10, 2014, Congress held a hearing to lambast three judges with abnormally high approval rates. This hearing extends the multi-year attempt by some in Congress to paint the Social Security disability program as a wasteful government program. As a disability attorney in Kansas City, MO, I want to be clear, no rational individual can disagree with Congress that there is a systematic problem when Administrative Law Judges are approving 99% of the claims they hear, often without a hearing. Congress and the Social Security Administration must do everything in its power to ensure proper stewardship of taxpayer resources.
Lost in this discussion, however, is the equally legitimate concern of Administrative Law Judges approving abnormally low number of claims. According to data published by the Social Security Administration, ALJ Virginia Robinson of the Seattle ODAR has issued 176 decisions and approved 18. That is a 7% approval rate. ALJ Jonathan Bulcher of the San Antonio ODAR issued 165 decisions and approved 21. That is a 12% win rate. ALJ John Thompson, Jr., of the Jacksonville ODAR issued 142 decisions with only 22 approvals. That is a 15% win rate. Joining him with a 15% approval rate are ALJs Susan Guiffre of the Cleveland ODAR and Cecilia LaCara of the Anchorage ODAR.
For the most part, sentiment about the Social Security disability program is strong. According to studies commissioned the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives, most Americans think the Social Security disability program is a good idea. These same people want common sense procedures put into place to ensure that people who deserve their benefits get them. In this lies the problem with Congresses focus on ALJ’s that approve too many claims.
It can take up to two year for an individual to be heard by an ALJ. Most claims are processed at the State level my State employees with no legal background before heading to a judges desk. These State employees often wrongly deny eligible applicants, despite Social Security’s best efforts to train them. ALJs with abnormally low approval rates are wreaking havoc in the lives of deserving applicants because a hearing denial often means that the individual will have to start all over and wait another two years.
During his Congressional grilling, Judge Krafsur stated, “I’ve seen their ailments, I’ve seen their pain, right in front of me.” Judge Burke, another ALJ that testified, explained that: “When they became disabled, they wait three years to get coverage they earned. Lives and families are destroyed.”
Right now, Congress is focused on the financial side of the program. That is important and the people in charge need to ensure program integrity. However, another aspect of program integrity is holding ALJ’s with abnormally low approval rates accountable. They, like those ALJ’s with abnormally high approval rates, are harming the American people.