Those who have been through the struggle to get approved for Social Security Disability benefits know that it’s hard enough to get accepted the first time you apply. Well over 50% of initial applicants are denied benefits, nationwide. The levels of the appeal process usually increase your chances, at the loss of time and money. However, there is still no guarantee you will receive a fair hearing.
Recent statistics and news story investigations show that Social Security Administrative Law Judges usually have a reputation for determinations either for or against their cases, seemingly regardless of whether the facts support them. One particular group of ALJs from Queens, New York, are the cause of a class-action lawsuit because of their 63% denial rate, and alleged bias against immigrants.
On the other hand, ALJ David B. Daugherty of Virginia was investigated and forced to step down temporarily because of his 99% approval rate for cases he had seen.
Considering that the chances of your Social Security Disability case being seen favorably at the hearing and appeals levels is more tied to which judge hears it than on whether your documentation supports your claim, there are definite signs that the system has serious flaws and is in need of reform It is obvious, though reprehensible, why judges would deny the cases of claimants they don’t care for or have personal bias against because of gender, age, social status, or race. It also makes sense that some judges feel the need to be extremely picky about which cases to approve considering the financial crisis that is facing the SSA.
It does not, however, always makes sense why some judges issue mass approvals. Some judges have admitted that they feel pressure from the Administration to move cases quickly through the system to help alleviate the current backlog of cases, some of which wait for years to be seen. This moves cases through, but most likely means that benefits are being awarded to claimants who should not qualify if judged fairly, causing greater financial stress on ever-dwindling SSA funds. In spite of the negative reputation this gives the SSA, the Administration would never ask judges to sacrifice their commitment to justice and fair hearings to the need for more case volume. They expect their ALJs to be fair and swift in their determinations, a task which requires the very best in their field.
In the SSA’s favor, they have responded quickly and decisively in situations such as the case with Daugherty, making the unprecedented decision to temporarily suspend him from practice pending investigations. Despite this, there is often very little that the SSA can do to directly reprimand underperforming ALJs, since they do not have authority over them and they enjoy lifetime tenure.
The SSA at least tries to help its applicants be aware of ALJs specific rulings by listing links on their webpage to their records. Choosing a judge who has statistically approved more cases with a particular illness or injury, etc., can be very beneficial to certain applicants. On the other hand, being aware of judges to have high denial rates can help applicants avoid them. For this reason, working closely with a disability lawyer or advocate who routinely practices in your local area and deals with the various judges can provide a distinct advantage when it comes to taking an appeal to hearing.