The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) arguably has more subjective power than any other link in the Social Security Disability chain. The system is intentionally designed to allow ALJs a broader ability to use their own judgment during Social Security Disability hearings than other SSA adjudicators. ALJs typically use the HALLEX as a basis for their decisions.
After all, the ALJ is the one person whom the disabled claimant has an opportunity to present his or her case to in person. To others in the disability system, a claimant is little more than a stack of paperwork. Rigid guidelines are used to restrain most adjudicators from being too lenient during the disability claims process. Administrative Law Judges, on the other hand, are allowed and encouraged to consider all pertinent information presented by disability claimants during their hearing.
But what happens when Administrative Law Judges bring their prejudices and preconceived notions to the bench? According to a lawsuit recently brought in Queens, NY, the results are that people who should be qualified for Social Security Disability benefits are denied the help they desperately need.
In most discrimination lawsuits, one expects to hear of racial bias, religious bias or favoritism, or some similar form of overt prejudice. In this case, however, the prejudice is particularly heinous. According to the lawsuit, these ALJs are deliberately and blatantly discriminating against disability claimants based on their level of income. Specifically, claimants who should be qualified are being denied Social Security Disability benefits if they had low income before they applied for disability.
At first glance, this case may seem like sour grapes from people who were denied benefits. That would certainly be understandable. No one likes to be told they don’t qualify for benefits, and the first reaction of many people when they are told “no” is to assume that prejudice is behind the decision. In most cases, it would make sense to give the benefit of the doubt to the ALJs. They are, after all, objective legal professionals. Or, at the very least, they’re supposed to be.
Furthermore, it’s true that the Queens ALJs in question turn down a lot of disability cases. In fact, their denial rates are the highest in the state of New York and the third highest in the entire country. Unfortunately, the approval rates are markedly different for low income claimants than they are for higher income claimants.
It’s truly sad that those who most need the system to work to help them and who are often least likely to reach out for the legal help which is available to them can’t seem to find justice at the hands of the Social Security Administration. Fortunately, Social Security Disability lawyers and disability advocates have taken this case head on and are confronting what appears to be blatant disregard of the SSA’s procedures and policies.
Discrimination has no place in our social structure, and this is especially true of Social Security Disability programs. Administrative Law Judges who blatantly ignore the directive set forth by the SSA to the detriment of any social group must be taken to task. In this case, that appears to be exactly what is happening.