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Social Security disability judges sue over excessive caseloads

The Association of Administrative Law Judges, a union representing ALJs at federal agencies -- 85 percent of whom work for the Social Security Administration -- has filed a lawsuit against the SSA claiming that their caseloads are too high to allow Social Security disability appeals to be decided fairly. They also warned lawmakers that, because approving claims takes much less time than denying them, there is a substantial incentive to approve claims they might otherwise question.

According to the lawsuit, the SSA requires the judges to decide between 500 and 700 Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income appeals every year. That translates to an average of more than two cases every day they work. That production goal applies regardless of the complexity of the cases, some of which have files 500 pages or longer. Failure to meet the quotas, the judges say, is enforced by formal reprimands and even by formal removal from judgeship.

That excessive caseload, the judges say, interferes with their judicial independence, denies claimants their due process rights, and strains the agency's resources by adding to the number of approved claims.

"Case quotas prevent judges from devoting necessary time to the most complex cases, resulting in waste and abuse," wrote the union's president in a statement. "Many administrative law judges find themselves pressured to grant more claims than they otherwise would because a decision awarding benefits is less complex and time-consuming than a decision which denies benefits."

Their complaints were not well-received by former SSA commissioner Michael J. Astrue or by certain lawmakers.

"There are a very small number of malcontents who want to litigate or put political pressure on the agency rather than do their work," Astrue commented on the lawsuit.

One lawmaker, who serves on House Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security, was even less friendly to the judges' grievances.

"Those who appeal their denied claim for disability benefits should not have to wait months, much less years, for a decision because some ALJs don't want to handle their fair share of cases," he reproved.

With the current budgetary issues in Congress, however, there could very well be truth in the judges' assertions. Considering the massive backlog in the Social Security disability system at every level, the be unpopular truth may be that more administrative resources are indeed required.

Source: cbsatlanta.com, "Judges sue Social Security over case 'quotas'," Stephen Ohlemacher, Associated Press, April 19, 2013

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