Thousands of poor Queens residents with debilitating conditions who were denied federal disability benefits would have their cases reconsidered, under a settlement proposal in a class-action lawsuit that accused judges of bias.
The lawsuit claimed that five administrative law judges with the Queens office that reviews claims for Social Security benefits had presided over hearings that trivialized the applicants’ physical and mental impairments and subjected them to harsh questioning that often brought them to tears. Now, in a settlement accepted by the plaintiffs and the Social Security Administration, the agency has agreed to remove the judges from those cases, allowing applicants — many of whom have been unable to work for years — to appear before new judges. As part of the settlement, the administration would enact new policies against bias and establish a special unit to monitor disability claims for the next 30 months. ...
However, one of the judges named in the lawsuit, David Z. Nisnewitz, was replaced as the chief of the Queens review board after the lawsuit was filed. As part of the agreement, he and the other four judges named — Michael D. Cofresi, Seymour Fier, Marilyn P. Hoppenfeld and Hazel C. Strauss — would be retrained....
Lawyers with the firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which handled the suit pro bono, and the Urban Justice Center, a nonprofit group, estimated that more than 4,000 cases — applicants who were denied benefits between January 2008 and the date of the settlement — would be reconsidered. ...
[T]he Queens board is already changing its ways. Before the suit, Judges Cofresi and Fier denied over 60 percent of the applications before them; those rates have dropped by more than half. The denial rates of Judge Nisnewitz and Judge Hoppenfeld also declined. Only the rate of Judge Strauss, who denied more than 80 percent of claims before the lawsuit, increased: In the most recent quarter, she denied 90 percent.I first posted about this class action lawsuit at the time it was filed in April 2011. I didn't say so at the time but I thought it quixotic. Hats off to Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and the Urban Justice Center.
Here are the denial rates -- not allowance rates but denial rates -- of the individual ALJs involved at the time the class action was brought:
- Strauss 81%
- Fier 63%
- Cofresi 63%
- Nisnewitz 62%
- Hoppenfeld 48%