Judges struggling to handle a surge of disability cases sometimes award benefits they might otherwise deny in order to clear cases faster so they can meet quotas imposed by the Social Security Administration, according to a lawsuit filed by the union representing the agency's administrative law judges.
The Social Security Administration says judges should decide 500 to 700 disability cases a year. The agency calls the standard a productivity goal, but the lawsuit claims it is an illegal quota that requires judges to decide an average of more than two cases a workday.
The lawsuit says the requirement violates judges' independence, denies due process rights to applicants and further strains the finances of a disability program that is projected to run out of money in 2016. ...
The lawsuit was filed by the union Thursday in federal court in Chicago. ...
In an interview, [former Commissioner Michael] Astrue disputed the union's claims.
"What's really happening here is that the judges' union doesn't want accountability of its members and it's been trying to sell this story to the media and to the Congress and to the agency for a very long time," Astrue said. "And no one's buying it because it's not true, and no federal judge is going to buy this story, either."
"There are a very small number of malcontents who want to litigate or put political pressure on the agency rather than do their work," Astrue said.Am I sympathetic to this lawsuit? Yes and no.
It's important to note that the workload pressures on Social Security's Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) are ridiculous. Expecting 500 to 700 decisions a year is way too much. My experience is that these workload norms have caused significant degradation in the quality of the hearing process at Social Security. More and more productivity has been expected of ALJs at a time when the cases themselves have become more and more time-consuming. Claimants with insurance are seeing more and more specialists and having more and more tests and medical procedures. All of these records have to be reviewed by the ALJ. Electronic medical record-keeping produces more medical records. Many of the electronic record systems essentially repeat a patient's entire medical history each time he or she visits a doctor. Anyone reviewing these records has to wade through this repetitious mess looking for what's new on each doctor visit. Social Security case files keep getting longer each year. That fact hasn't filtered through to Social Security management but it's a huge problem at ground level.
As much as I sympathize with ALJs on their workload pressures , I've seen no evidence that ALJs have been subjected to anything more than workload norms. They can ignore these norms without fear of formal punishment unless they get to the point of extraordinarily low productivity. The norms have certainly had a dramatic effect but I've seen no evidence that there is any real enforcement mechanism behind the norms. I don't see how you're going to make the argument that there is a quota and I'm not sure that a quota will be illegal anyway. Unwise yes but illegal?
Filing suit at this time makes no sense to me. Yes, Michael Astrue is gone. He was quite unsympathetic to ALJs, as you can tell from the quote given above -- although I thought he became less unsympathetic the longer he was Commissioner. You might think that Social Security management would now be more sympathetic to ALJs and more willing to settle this lawsuit but has the ALJ union heard of sequestration? It's a huge problem for the agency. I don't think it's realistic at this time to expect the agency to settle this on terms favorable to the ALJs.
By the way, it's worth noting that ALJs are not all union members. Those who are union members don't always agree with what the union does. I'm sure that there is a vigorous debate going on among Social Security's ALJs right now. Whether you agree or disagree with this lawsuit, don't give blame or credit for it to all ALJs. They are a diverse group.