An investigation conducted by federal prosecutors from the Social Security Administration (SSA) has had some far reaching implications for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) review processes and procedures. The primary subject of the investigation is Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) David B. Daugherty from the Huntington, West Virginia SSA office, though attention also fell on other ALJs throughout the nation.
Daugherty’s actions were drawn into question in May 2011 by an article which ran on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. That article spurred a media frenzy and eventually a federal inquiry into the court records of the SSDI hearings conducted and eligibility determinations issued by Daugherty.
What’s the Investigation All About?
The investigation’s main focus was on Daugherty’s consistent and unusually high approval rating for SSDI cases. Questions were also raised regarding Daugherty selecting many of his own cases and the fact that a large number of those cases were argued by the same attorney.
There are about 1,500 or so ALJs who review SSDI eligibility cases in the country. A little over one half of the people who apply for SSDI are found eligible for benefits through the adjudication process. Cases appearing before Daugherty, on the other hand, saw just shy of a 100% approval rating.
What About Other Judges in the SSA System?
The investigation initiated into Daugherty’s case statistics has drawn attention to the high approval rates of other ALJs as well, with about 100 other judges showing similar approval rates. Little to no attention has fallen on those ALJs with disproportionately low approval ratings though, despite the fact that many judges approve benefits at significantly lower than the 60% national average.
One could argue the reason for all the attention is falling on judges with high approval rates is because of panic over the impending depletion of the SSDI Trust Fund. That fund is projected to run out by 2018, at which time SSDI benefits will need to be cut to about 86% of their current rate, that is, if appropriate measures are not take to address the problems with the system and the funding challenges faced by the Social Security Administration.
What Happened to Daugherty?
Amidst all of the controversy stirred up by the investigation and the media attention it received, Daugherty was placed on indefinite administrative leave, followed shortly thereafter by his retirement. His supervisor also stepped down from his position in the Huntington office.
What Affects has the Investigation had on SSDI?
Policy and procedural changes have been implemented by the SSA. Those changes include limitations placed on the number of cases a single ALJ can hear in one year, set a maximum of 1,200. Additionally, judges have less discretion over the specific cases they hear, and managers are now required to have greater involvement in the assignment and review of cases.
Implications of the Investigation on SSDI
While the changes put in place following the investigation may help the Administrative Law system focus more on the quality of SSDI case reviews, it does not address the larger issues with the system. The SSDI is a crucial social insurance program that exists to protect disabled workers. It’s also a system which is clearly broken, facing funding problems, unprecedented growth, a case backlog of more than 700,000, and other issues.
Social Security reform is a hot topic in Washington and the high number of cases approved by Daugherty and other ALJs increases expenses associated with SSDI. No doubt this is one reason Daugherty’s conduct received such media attention. While potential misconduct of any ALJ warrants investigation, any single investigation should not distract policymakers and SSA officials from addressing the larger issues with the program itself, including concerns with ALJs who have exceptionally low approval rates.