Aug 14, 2018

Social Security Obstructing Legal Representation For Eric Conn's Former Clients

     Social Security has threatened or is threatening termination of disability benefits to thousands of Eric Conn's former clients. These cases have come in two waves. We're in the second wave now. 
     The need for pro bono legal representation in the Conn cases far exceeds what can be provided locally. Attorneys all over the country have stepped up to help these sick people who were unaware of Conn's illegal behavior. In the last wave of cases, attorneys from other parts of the country appeared by video. It wasn't perfect but it did provide legal representation which couldn't have been provided otherwise.
     Cases are now being scheduled for this second wave of Conn hearings. This time attorneys are receiving the letter shown below. We're being told that "Your office was made aware of the location of the hearing when it was scheduled and is in not in the best interest of the claimant for you to appear at another location ..." I was made aware of the location of the hearing when it was scheduled but I told the people scheduling the hearing that I would need to appear by video. I was told to send in my request so I did so, expecting to have my appearance by video. The idea that allowing me to appear by video would "not be in the best interest of the claimant" is almost Orwellian. There are already so many reasons why denials by Administrative Law Judges in the Conn cases may get remanded, it's hard for me to comprehend why anyone at Social Security would think this is a good idea.

Happy Birthday, Social Security!


Slow Progress On DCPS

     From a report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General:
SSA is developing DCPS [Disability Case Processing System] as a common system for all DDSs [Disability Determination Services]. The Agency expects DCPS will simplify system support and maintenance, improve the speed and quality of the disability process, and reduce the overall growth rate of infrastructure costs.
SSA is using an incremental approach to develop and deploy DCPS. In December 2016, the Agency released its first working software to three DDSs, enabling them to process certain types of disability claims. Since then, the Agency has developed and implemented new releases that have provided additional functionality and has made the system available to users in 10 DDSs.
In November 2017, SSA postponed rolling DCPS out to additional DDSs and focused its resources on development. The Agency also concentrated on increasing the numbers of DCPS users at participating DDSs and cases they process in the system. ...
We asked users to respond to the statement, “Overall, I am satisfied with DCPS.” Of the 120 users who responded, 
  • 69 (58 percent ) either agreed or strongly agreed;
  • 28 (23 percent) either disagreed or strongly disagreed;
  • 17 (14 percent) neither agreed nor disagreed; and
  • 6 (5 percent) did not respond to the statement. 
In general, users liked the modern interface, DCPS’ ease of use, and their ability to work on multiple cases simultaneously. Administrators and users also indicated they would like more functionality. For example, because DCPS lacked certain functionality, users had to employ workarounds to process certain cases. In addition, users had to follow up on evidence requests outside the system. Further, users commented about their inability to effectively manage their caseload s in DCPS . ...
In December 2017, the 10 participating DDSs completed 797 cases in DCPS (about 2 percent of their workload). In May 2018, they completed 1,543 cases (about 4 percent of their workload).
SSA recognized that its inability to convince DDS users of the value and advantage of DCPS may negatively affect DDS adoption rates. To address this, the Agency planned to continue working with users to develop and demonstrate working software. ...
     A year and a half into the project and we're only up to a handful of DDS units processing 4% of their workload using DCPS? At that rate, DCPS might be fully implemented in another 50-75 years.

Aug 13, 2018

You Can Blame The Hearing Backlog On A Lot Of Things But Staffing Level Cuts Really Stand Out

     From Workload Review of the Office of Hearings Operations' Atlanta and New York Regions, a report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General:
The hearing offices in both regions with high average processing times (APT) had below-average staffing levels, low morale, and issues with telework, claimant representatives, and the quality of the support staff’s work. Other factors, such as administrative law judge performance issues, difficulty scheduling expert witnesses, and a large number of supplemental hearings/postponements also contributed to high APT.
In the New York Region, local office management issues and State filing requirements were also negative factors. In the Atlanta Region, an insufficient number of decision writers and information technology problems were negative factors. In the New York Region, several interviewees cited their Regional Office as a negative factor that contributed to higher APT and lower productivity. The issues that interviewees cited included Regional Office micromanagement, excessive time and oversight devoted to minor issues, goals not agreeing with real capabilities, negative messaging/tone, and frequent changes implemented with little notice or input.

      No doubt the Inspector General's Office was trying to do a thorough report but, come on, staffing levels are the story here. Work on the other stuff too but don't expect much improvement without doing something about the staffing levels.
     By the way, don't expect any improvement in performance by those who represent Social Security claimants without an increase in the fee cap. Inflation has cut the value of fee payments at the same time the workload has been increased by burgeoning Social Security files and new regulations making new demands. You get what you pay for on, in this case, what you allow claimants to pay for. The agency can adopt all the coercive regulations it wants but things will just get worse until something is done about compensation. If you work at Social Security and think that those who represent Social Security claimants make lots of money, why don't you just leave the agency and get on that gravy train you think you see out there? Almost no one is doing that, however, which should tell you something.

Aug 11, 2018

Panhandling While Waiting On Social Security

     From a television station in Indianapolis:
An Indianapolis man says he’s taken to the streets to panhandle because his application for disability requires him to wait almost two years for help.Richard Frizzle underwent heart surgery in April 2017 and applied for disability that August. Ten months later, Frizzle is still awaiting approval. With no income and no idea whether he’ll get disability, Frizzle has turned to panhandling. ...
Call 6 Investigates confirmed that Richard Frizzle filled out his paperwork for federal disability benefits on August 8, 2017. But the Chicago office of Social Security Administration says the average wait time for a hearing in Indianapolis is 19 months. ...

Aug 10, 2018

New ALJ Hiring?

     It's been less than a month since the President ordered that Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) would henceforth be hired as "excepted service" employees. Now we hear rumors that the Social Security Administration hopes to begin hiring new ALJs in the near future. If this is true, drawing up a plan to evaluate ALJ candidates and getting everyone at the agency on board so quickly is surprising. 
     There are essentially no limits on how "excepted service" hiring is done. The agency can get away with almost anything without breaking any law. 
     Haste combined with a lack of legal limits makes me worry.
     I hope everyone involved realizes that if Democrats get control of the House of Representatives after the November election, as now appears likely, the House Social Security Subcommittee will be holding a hearing on ALJ hiring early next year where Social Security officials will have to explain what process they have used or will be using. Here's some things that probably wouldn't go over too well if that hearing happens:
  • A secretive process with no announced selection criteria
  • A lack of public notice of job openings
  • Political influence on the hiring process, such as candidates being hired because of recommendations from the White House or members of Congress
  • ALJ jobs used to give a soft landing to Congressional staffers who lose their jobs if Democrats win control of the House of Representatives
  • Ideological bias in the hiring process
  • Job candidates being vetted by outside groups who are not otherwise involved with Social Security ALJs, such as the Federalist Society
  • Personal favoritism in the hiring process
  • A lack of diversity among those hired
  • Hiring only from within the agency
  • Lots of hiring of agency employees nearing retirement who only want to work as ALJs for a short time in order to increase their retirement benefits
  • Using ALJ jobs to clear deadwood out of Social Security's Office of General Counsel or other parts of Social Security

Acting Commissioner Message On Wildfires


From: ^Commissioner Broadcast
Sent: Friday, August 10, 2018 8:27 AM
Subject: Wildfires in California

A Message to All SSA Employees 
Subject: Wildfires in California
You may have heard the news about wildfires in the northern California area.  These wildfires have burned more than 500,000 acres.  This natural disaster continues to devastate surrounding areas, affecting a number of our offices and employees.  The region has accounted for all employees and we are thankful that they are all safe. 
The Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Homeland Security continue coordinating efforts with local officials to provide much needed assistance.  Area fire and police departments are working to contain the spreading wildfires that forced closures, evacuation orders, and damage to the Ferguson, Carr, Crestline, Highland, Ranch, and River areas.  Our offices in Lakeport, Redding, Sonora, Merced, and Ukiah are all at different stages of recovery. 
Many Redding employees are providing staff support at the Local Assistance Center at the Shasta High School and continue to serve the public.  Our employees are processing replacement Social Security card applications, providing benefit verifications, changing addresses, and answering benefit questions.
I want to give a special ‘thank you’ to all of the brave men and women who are working tirelessly to contain the fires.  Let us also remember and honor those that lost their lives in the line of duty for the safety and protection of others.
I want to commend our personnel from the San Francisco Regional office and those who are on site assisting employees in recovery efforts.  Please keep all of those affected by these wildfires in your thoughts.

Nancy A. Berryhill
Acting Commissioner

Sentence Affirmed For A Conn Co-Defendant

     The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has affirmed the sentencing of Alfred Bradley Adkins, one of Eric Conn's co-defendants.

Eviction Of Unions Causes Problems For Social Security Employees

     Ailsa Change of National Public Radio reports on the problems caused by Social Security's evictions of unions from its premises.

Aug 9, 2018

SSA Wants To Remove Inability To Communicate In English As Factor In Disability Determination

     The Social Security Administration has asked the Office of Management and Budget to authorize the publication of proposed regulations on Removing Inability to Communicate in English as an Education Category. If approved by OMB, the proposed changes would be published in the Federal Register and the public could comment. Social Security could then consider the comments before asking OMB to authorize the publication of final regulations. Here's Social Security's summary of the proposal:
We propose to revise existing disability evaluation rules relating to the ability to communicate in English.  Specifically, we will clarify that an inability to communicate in English is not tantamount to illiteracy or inadequate verbal communication.  Rather, an inability to communicate adequately verbally or in writing in any language will be the effective standard.   The proposed revisions will reflect current research, analysis of our disability program data, Federal agency data about workforce participation, and comments we received from the public in response to an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.
     If you think this proposal is based upon "research" instead of rampant Republican racism and nativism, you're naive. Inability to communicate in English remains a serious obstacle to work particularly when added to other obstacles caused by illness.
     This is one of several proposals that may not advance if Democrats gain control of the House of Representatives in November.

Aug 8, 2018

They Need Help

Widow of a Conn client who committed suicide
     The struggle continues for many of Eric Conn's former clients. Social Security has expanded its target list. They're now going after more of his former clients. The hearings are starting up again.
     Kentucky attorneys have stepped up and are representing many of these unfortunate folks but the need is far beyond what Kentucky attorneys can handle.
     Don't think that if you volunteer that you'll be working with criminals (not that there's anything wrong with that). No one is accusing Conn's clients of being in on his scheme. Many of Conn's clients never met Conn. I represent several of Conn's former clients and can tell you that they're ordinary Social Security disability claimants.
     These cases can't be done on a fee generating basis because the claimants continue to receive benefits as they await new hearings and decisions from new Administrative Law Judges.
     You don't have to travel to Kentucky to represent one of Conn's former clients. You can participate in the hearing by video from your nearest hearing office.
     To volunteer, please contact Mary Going at AppalRed Legal Aid. Her e-mail address is mary[at]ardfky.org. Her phone number is 606-886-9876. There's a listserver where you can ask for and receive advice on representing Conn's former clients.