Sep 12, 2016

ALJs Are Supposed To Schedule 45-50 Hearings A Month

An e-mail from Social Security's Chief Administrative Law Judge Debra Bice:
Jack and I have spoken with many of you over the last few months and know that you share ODAR’s commitment to public service by providing claimants with timely and policy compliant dispositions. You also have shared some of the challenges you face in doing so. We are aware of the challenges you have been facing, even more so now with the hiring freeze. We are working on many initiatives to help support you, such as new regulations, pre-hearing conferences and case summaries of large files.

Given the current environment, you have asked how many cases we expect every judge to schedule each month. Looking at current data, a majority of you are scheduling an average of 45-50 hearings a month and completing the work in a legally sufficient and policy compliant manner. I know that it takes dedication to manage your docket effectively and I thank each of you. I am asking EVERY judge to schedule hearings generally in the range of an average of 45-50 hearings per month. If you feel comfortable handling more cases and can maintain legal sufficiency and policy compliance in your dispositions, please continue to do, and we thank you. If are not yet scheduling an average of 45-50 cases a month, please try to increase your dockets to do so. This may mean adding a day of hearings every month or an additional hearing to each hearing day. We will continue to evaluate our scheduling expectations for all judges in the future.

For those of you who elect to telework, I am going to advise our HOCALJs that, for the October 2016 to March 2017 telework period, an average of 45-50 scheduled hearings a month generally should be considered “reasonably attainable.” I am also going to discuss again with our HOCALJs the need to consider all extenuating circumstances in considering your telework requests.

This is a crisis time for us. Even with all the headwinds in our face, the public we serve is asking us to do the most we can. I am so proud of all of you. If all judges generally can schedule an average of 45-50 hearings a month or more, hold those hearings absent good cause, and move the cases out of ALJ controlled status timely, we can make headway in reducing the wait time for a decision. I speak for your national leaders, your RCALJs and certainly your HOCALJs. All of us, ALL OF US, are appreciative of all you do. I know sometimes our messages do not always reflect that appreciation, but make no mistake - it is unwavering. Judge Allen and I are proud to be your judicial colleagues.


Anonymous said...

I love Judge Bice's and Judge Allen's thought process, if its too hard to move enough cases and be policy compliant, lets just rewrite the policy to make it easier to comply with, due process and fairness be damned. They have sold their souls to the devil for sure.

Anonymous said...

Below is a great example. ALJ Hesse in Orange, CA, is the lowest granter in the lowest granting ODAR in Cali. You can see her dispositions went from 673 in 2010 down to 478 in 2015. Now, low granting ALJs are almost always more productive.

Why? Because they get rid of lot of cases for bogus technicalities e.g. did not file request for hearing within the 60 days. More productive typically means more denials almost always.

My point for 10 years now about ALJs is simple - ODAR does not care how many cases an ALJ grants (0 or 100 percent). They only care how cases they blow through (whether or not it is quality work). Why? Because the public, media, and some Congress people puts pressure on them when the backlog rises again.

Helen Hesse

Orange 2010 673 470 226 244 30% 36% 34%
Orange 2011 661 455 227 228 31% 34% 34%
Orange 2012 570 453 290 163 21% 29% 51%
Orange 2013 519 410 266 144 21% 28% 51%
Orange 2014 479 386 267 119 19% 25% 56%
Orange 2015 478 369 254 115 23% 24% 53%
Orange 2016 356 267 191 76 25% 21% 54%

Anonymous said...

There are 21-22 work days (not including holidays) in the average month. An ALJ is supposed to decide over 2 cases per day. Many of these cases have thousands of pages of medical records. ODAR is asking the impossible. No one can provide good work product with this workload.

I believe it would be difficult for an ALJ do decide one case per day, let alone 2.

The solution to the backlog is more ALJs and more staff.

Anonymous said...

@ 11:58AM. Instead of the obvious solution you indicated, the powers that be have instead decided to go with the easier and cheaper route of changing policy. Why? because, as you point out, the only thing they care about is numbers.

Anonymous said...

12:12 PM,

This may not fit your narrative, but it's also possible that they're not hiring more ALJs and staff because they don't get to dictate their own budget.

When Congress gives the agency a blank check for hiring, and the agency says "Nah, we'd really rather issue a large number of low-quality decisions," then maybe we can revisit your argument.

Anonymous said...


While the Agency may not get a blank check from Congress, they do control where the money goes. Colvin has been an operations oriented Acting SSA Commissioner, who has starved ODAR and the Disability components of the Agency during much of her tenure. Few would argue this is not the case, and the significant backlog is proof of this.

In addition, operations has slowly taken over ODAR over the past several years. These are the individuals who have tried to groom support staff into Attorney decision writer's with the intent to eliminate many of the Attorney decision writing positions, and reduce any support staff to a bare minimum while dictating what they can do, and for whom. Thus, no more Secretarial/Typing support staff - None.

This same group of former Operations employees who took over ODAR abhorred the Senior Attorney Program from its inception, desperately tried to destroy it for years, and finally succeeded in minimizing and centralizing much of it.

It is the former Operations folks who pushed for Centralization with the intent of eliminating more and more hearing offices forcing claimants into video hearings.

Further, it is the Operations folks who who pushed to hire AAJ's instead of ALJ's to hold hearings, and advertised the new AAJ position in such a manner as to exclude long-term ODAR Senior Attorneys from applying, but allow Attorney HOD's with no Senior Attorney adjudication experience to apply. When this failed, they advertised the AAJ positions solely within DHS (Medicare). When this failed, this same group of former Operations folks proposed term limited ALJ's, which also failed. In the meantime, they refused to allow veteran SA's to attack the backlog by reinstalling the original SA Program to screen for O-T-R's, settle appropriate cases, signature authority, etc.

It is the same Operations folks who have approved large bonuses for other high ranking former Operations officials, such as Gerald Ray, and others, which was detailed in an earlier thread this year.

So, when you say, "Neh, we'd really rather issue a large number of low quality decisions," the convincing evidence suggests this is, indeed, the case. The fact is it is all about numbers to these former Operations folks who have taken over ODAR. If they had their way, there would be no Attorneys or ALJ's, but non-attorney Hearing Officers, decision writer's, and the bare minimum in support staff.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Anon 11:58. It is all about the numbers per my point.

Sometimes feel for ALJs who are pressured to blow through 500-800 cases per year. Some cases require more time than others. So those that do devote more time, ALJs are under pressure to blow through cases.

Obviously it is about understaffing and money. There is a human component. Some ALJs just don't hear a lot of cases for some reason.

For example, ALJ Wheeler in West LA. He is a very low granter (29 percent). He only hears about 200-300 cases per year (so that is what like 5-6 per week). Lazy? Not exactly. Wheeler is very conservative, Republican. Actually he is a very sympathetic guy when it comes to other issues for claimants like being late.

Living in SoCal, traffic causes a lot of delays. ALJ Wheeler is very sympathetic to give a new hearing for a NTSC. Other ALJs in SoCal, e.g. ALJ Weir in downtown LA, will not tolerate 5 minutes late. Just so happens Weir is the KING of dismissing requests for hearing. That is why he is the Chief ALJ.

Those who dismiss and/or blow through cases rise through the ranks.

ALJ Wheeler
Los Angeles West 2010 512 328 138 190 36% 37% 27%
Los Angeles West 2012 437 214 100 114 51% 26% 23%
Los Angeles West 2013 390 264 135 129 32% 33% 35%
Los Angeles West 2014 389 274 173 101 30% 26% 44%
Los Angeles West 2015 432 248 150 98 43% 23% 35%
Los Angeles West 2016 273 174 94 80 36% 29% 34%

Anonymous said...

@1:23 (hey there, SA 27)

"These are the individuals who have tried to groom support staff into Attorney decision writer's with the intent to eliminate many of the Attorney decision writing positions, and reduce any support staff to a bare minimum while dictating what they can do, and for whom (sic)"

Couldn't be more wrong on this point, at least not in the past five years or so. ODAR has moved away from letting anyone without a law degree draft decisions, and between that policy, the NCACs full up of attorneys, and the "no hiring writers in an ODAR field office unless there are fewer writers than ALJs," policy, nobody but the NCACs are getting writers and nobody is getting paralegals. Just ask any SCT who trolls this board what the prospect of paralegal positions is looking like if you don't believe me. So unless Operations' whole nefarious plot entails sending its favorites to law school, this is no concern at all.

What SSA IS doing is loading up lower ODAR mgmt. with operations people. Lots of former OSs are becoming GSs and HODs...and you are correct about operations (and DDS!!!!) getting more money than they probably needed relative to other components in the last few years because its alums are disproportionately made SES and given plum positions.

Operations had nothing to do with senior attorneys getting marginalized--that had to do with poor understanding of agree rates and being hyper concerned about any corps of people who (potentially) issue big numbers of FF decisions without much scrutiny. (once bitten, twice shy thanks to Huntington). It was the chief actuary flipping his wig, and SSA finding a way to adjust the program to keep those who had to sign off on its continued existence (don't forget the SAA program is temporary and must be renewed) that led to what we have.

AAJs require GS-14 experience because OPM says in its PDs that's what the generic (i.e., ANY AND ALL) hearing examiner position requires. No conspiracy against you, SA 27, or all your other long-tenured senior attorneys, just another crappy benefit of SSA having pathetically low career ladders for its attorneys.

But yeah, generally operations has way too much pull and its people don't tend to make good ODAR-related decisions. However, as someone who is exceedingly frustrated by the current management structure dominated by judges, I am not so sure an operations takeover would be so bad.

Anonymous said...

Hey 1:23 has the solution to the backlogs! All SSA needs to do is hire typists for all the ALJs again! Mad Men had it right!

Anonymous said...

I agree with 1:23.
The history depicted is entirely accurate.
Note, operations slowly took over ODAR. This has been going on for several years. ODAR's decision to finally move away from non-attorney decision writer's is also very

@1:57, (#2), your remarks are abominable and make no sense. Many of us have stressed the need for support staff and lack thereof. This bashing of SA 27, who usually identifies themself, which 1:23 did not, is unwarranted.

Anonymous said...

Forty-five cases a month really means 50 cases a month if you factor in vacations, illness, weather closings, etc... in order to average 45 cases a month. This 45 a month average totals 540 a year, clearly in excess of the magic "500" number. Way back when I was active the benefit of working from home kept me from retiring earlier than I did and motivated me, and others, to produce to justify this benefit.
While I would be able to meet these quotas there were many ALJs in my office who were so sincere in doing a quality job that they would never be able to do even 400 cases a year. They actually worked harder than others who may have produced more volume.
I would resent being told how great a job I was doing, yet being told to do more, maintaining the same level of quality.

Anonymous said...


SA 27 here. The Operations people who infiltrated ODAR played a significant part in trying to destroy the SA Program early on. That is largely who I had to deal with in 1997 when I, along with SAA, fought so hard for the SA Program which they were going to single handedly destroy in our office with the idea that doing so would lead to the elimination of the SA Program nationwide. A former well connected Operations person in management with a history in Falls Church, and one of the most corrupt, crooked, harassing and incompetent individuals I have ever worked is primarily responsible for illegally forcing my SAA and I out, along with several other career ODAR employees - All of whom were exceptional employees.

The whole AAJ proposal was stupid. That being said, if ODAR officials actually used their brains, they would have found a way to allow experienced ODAR SA's to apply, i.e., no real difference between GS 13-10 and GS 14-1 IMHO.

Your statement, "However, as someone who is exceedingly frustrated by the current management structure dominated by judges, I am not so sure an operations takeover would be so bad," speaks volumes about you, and intimates you are a former Operations person. What judges? There are very few judges in high level ODAR positions. In fact, many have indicated this is the problem, e.g., a Hearings Process run by non-attorneys. The few judges in these high level positions are also pressured to tow the Agency line, i.e., what the former Operations people want.

Anonymous said...

This commissioner doesn’t care nor understand ODAR. Until there is a commissioner who will say to congress that SSA can’t keep up with any component work load on 75% of the necessary funding, nothing will change. All the fighting on this blog between SSA in house and others really means little. Astrue was not the darling of ODAR, but he had enough brains to tell congress they would only get what they paid for.

Anonymous said...

Don't have much experience compared to many of you. Colvin is the only one I've seen but every time I've ever heard her speak she spends time complaining about lack of budget.

It is sad that it appears they are using the policy shop to try to help reduce the backlog and correct funding problems.

I've only seen Sklar and Gruber, Sklar was an OGC attorney maybe someone can enlighten me on how operations has taken over. I don't know what the old days were like so I don't know what SA27 is talking about largely. I still maintain that operations is deemed more important because it deals with retirement which the public at large views as the primary mission of SSA. Rich powerful people want the check they don't need.

I think all the judges in my office do over 500 a year. Its very hard for me to muster much sympathy for an untouchable individual receiving meaningless guidance e-mails making 172K a year for 40 hours a week of work and 8 telework days per month with a pension and a 401k match, but hey maybe I spent too much time in an insurance defense sweatshop.

Anonymous said...

Spending time complaining about lack of budget is part of the job description. Having the understanding and advocacy to articulate the full scale of the disaster as Astrue repeatedly did...
is another thing.

Colvin is a seat warming bureaucrat whom Congress has tolerated but never taken seriously. She has presided over this demise with a total lack of vision and her main concern appears to be keeping her salary. When she testifies before congress, it’s not pretty. Hacks hand her comments and answers within minutes. It is not about sympathy for ALJs, it is about the claimants who are denied timely hearings (and the other operations services including retirement) because the agency is underfunded.

Anonymous said...

One of the things that seems to be impacting ALJs' ability to schedule and hold hearings is issues with staff, because of the hiring freeze as well as from telework. I was flabbergasted to learn that clerical staff can telework 3 days a week after 1 year on the job under the current contract. There is apparently a limit on the % of staff that can be out on any given day. I have heard from ALJs that they cannot get simple things done like having an earnings record added to the file, the proferring of interrogatories or a consultative exam report, and other similar clerical tasks because they cannot effectively communicate with the clerical staff when they not in the office. It slows everything down.

I'd be interested in hearing from ALJs as well as clerical staff about what they think of the telework program and what impact, if any, they feel it has on productivity at ODAR.

Anonymous said...

Its a near completely electronic environment now. If a judge cannot get those tasks done and they know how to use e-mail or instant messaging its a staff/mgmt. issue not a telework issue. All of those tasks can be done from home. The judge has to report problems to mgmt. employees can be taken off telework for performance.

Anonymous said...

This directive is nothing new. Former CALJ Cristaudo issued the same directive about 2008. The numbers were derived from the total backlog at that time, divided by the number of ALJs at that time. it had nothing to do with how much time it actually takes to review a file, hear and adjudicate a claim.
BTW, before becoming an ALJ, Judge Bice was in SSA management. She was a line ALJ from June 2008 until early 2009, not even a year. Then HOCALJ at Kansas City ODAR; then CALJ.

Anonymous said...

Judge Allen moved his way up through the ranks rather quickly as well. He was sent on special detail to deal with the Huntington situation which I think he has leveraged into an upward career track. He is little more than a yes man for whoever cuts his check.

Anonymous said...

What was Bice's production rate as an alj? Allen's? Or were they the types who managed to ingratiate their way out of production work & into non production early on?

Anonymous said...

From the perspective of someone who works at the AC, the problem with Debra Bice's argument is that ALJ's are frequently not completing their work in a "legally sufficient" and "policy compliant" manner. Roughly half of the RR's at the AC could and should be granted. But the AC is suppressing the grant-review rate (basically rubber-stamping inadequate ALJ denials) so as not to embarrass the ALJ's and so the AC can churn out as many actions as possible.

Anonymous said...

1:34- LOL. I have complained about a few problem employees for over a decade and they all got to telework. We have one employee who was told by every member of management to get off her cellphone and she is teleworking. That will never be taken away. I do not begrudge anyone telework, as long as they work. The workers do their work whether at home or in the office. The slackers are now slacking off more. The turn-around time for my work has increased 2-3x since telework and the 'distributed environment.'
11:28 as soon as the Agency said they would increase quality I knew the remands would decrease; how else do you prove that you accomplished your goal?

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