Thursday, July 7, 2011

Social Security ALJ's Receiving Media and Political Attention

Over the past several months Social Security Administrative Law Judges have been receiving media attention, regarding both lower than average award rates and higher than average award rates.  The result has prompted some political attention resulting in a Congressional Hearing to be held on Monday July 11, 2011.

April 12, 2011 the New York Times published the article, “Suit Alleges Bias in Disability Denials by Queens Judges.”  This article focused on five judges in New York that averaged in 2010 a denial rate of 63% compared to the national average of 36%.  In addition, they were alleged to be combative, and biased.

January 2011 the West Virginian News published a precursor to the story picked up in the Wall Street Journal on May 19th, "Disability-Claim Judge Has Trouble Saying 'NO'"  This article focused on the extremely high award rate of Administrative Law Judge,  David B. Daugherty, and the alleged inappropriate relationship with Social Security attorney Eric Conn.

July 1, 2011 USA Today published the article, "Data shows disability benefits can depend on judge" in which they highlighted the great disparity in award and denial rates among Administrative Law Judges across the country. 

All of this media attention has brought with it some political attention.  Most recently U.S. Congressman Sam Johnson (R-TX), Chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security, and U.S. Congressman Howard Coble (R-NC), Chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Commercial and Administrative Law, announced  that the Subcommittees will hold a joint oversight hearing on the role of Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) at the Social Security Administration (SSA).  The hearing will take place on Monday, July 11, 2011 in 2141 Rayburn House Office Building, beginning at 3:30 p.m.  The goal of this hearing is to examine the role of ALJs, the impact their decisions have on those who have appealed their claim and on taxpayers, and SSA’s overall management of and challenges facing the hearing process.
This situation is an example of Congress reacting by holding hearings after an expose appears in a newspaper or on a news magazine TV show.  There has been some historical examples of reactionary changes occurring after a news organization has highlighted certain areas of the Social Security Administration. In the 1990’s Congress eliminated SS benefits based on drug and alcohol abuse after a “60 Minutes” story on addicts waiting for their SS checks so they could buy illegal drugs. In the early 1980’s after another  news organization pointed out that SSA was not performing any continuing disability reviews suddenly the pendulum swung the other way and many recipients had there benefits terminated as a result of many re-exams.   ALJ award and denial rates have historically varied greatly. The problem faced with trying to discern why this is the case and how to rectify the issue is that  judges are protected in order to be allowed qualified decisional independence.  This creates challenges to being able to performance manage ALJs based upon their decisions.