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Syracuse-related study raises serious questions about fairness of SSA disability judges

TRAC finds wide disparity among ALJ  rulings


No study about SSA Disability in recent memory deserves more attention than the one recently released (and subsequently pooh-poohed by the SSA) from Syracuse University's Trans­ac­tional Records Access Clear­ing­house (TRAC), a non-profit research orga­ni­za­tion.

Don't let the system beat you down

If you (or a family member or friend) are one of the unlucky minions to feel trapped and ignored by the federal government's program to aid disabled persons, please don't let the findings of this admittedly bleak report stop you from pressing forward with your claim. If anything, this report should legitimize the idea that disability judges can be arbitrary in their rulings and therefore a trained, experienced disability attorney could be your best ally in this notoriously time-consuming process.

Huge disparity among judges' approval rates

The following is from a Baltimore news site called Baltimore City Paper Blogs; it begins with a district centered in San Antonio, Texas--but the grim numbers apparently apply across the nation:
In San Anto­nio, Texas, peo­ple hop­ing to get Social Secu­rity dis­abil­ity pay­ments could see their cases assigned to any of 17 judges. The luck of this draw mat­ters a lot. One of the judges grants ben­e­fits in just 14 per­cent of cases. Another judge hands over benefits—which range from about $700 per month to about twice that—92 per­cent of the time. That 78 per­cent dis­par­ity rate makes San Anto­nio the sec­ond most lottery-like sys­tem in the Social Secu­rity Administration’s arch­i­pel­ago of hear­ing offices, accord­ing to a data analy­sis by the Trans­ac­tional Records Access Clear­ing­house, a non-profit research orga­ni­za­tion housed at Syra­cuse Uni­ver­sity. (Dal­las is num­ber one, with 83 per­cent disparity). “To a sur­pris­ing extent the records on dis­abil­ity deci­sions show again and again that even within the indi­vid­ual offices there is not a clear con­sen­sus among the judges about which claims should be awarded ver­sus which should be denied,” the authors of the report , David Burn­ham and Sue Long, write. “The prob­lem today is some­what worse than it was four and a half years ago.”

This study is from a group aligned with Syracuse University

In case you missed the in-line link, here it is again, the link to the report summary by TRAC, the research outfit aligned with Syracuse University, which reports studying nearly two million claims filed with the Social Security Administration. The report starts thusly:
A court-by-court analysis of close to two million Social Security Administration (SSA) claims has documented extensive and hard-to-explain disparities in the way the administrative law judges (ALJs) within the agency's separate hearing offices decide whether individuals will be granted or denied disability benefits. These findings — discussed in detail below — suggest that in many SSA hearing offices today, the chance a disability claim is granted or denied is often determined more by the particular judge assigned to handle it than by the facts and circumstances presented in the case. The findings further document that the problem is not simply the result of a few judges whose decisions are far out of line with those of other judges on the bench. Rather, the agency's own case-by-case evidence demonstrates that the problem is systemic. To a surprising extent the records on disability decisions show again and again that even within the individual offices there is not a clear consensus among the judges about which claims should be awarded versus which should be denied.
Systemic. That doesn't sound good, as anyone with a systemic disease knows and understands. That means whatever the problem is, it's not localized but instead spread throughout the entire system.

USA Today reports on 'disparity'

Following is an excerpt from a recent USA Today report, illustrative of the perception of the status quo in such matters:
Congress and the agency's inspector general have begun looking at the disparity. Yet both Social Security officials and advocates for the disabled say they are reluctant to interfere with the judges' independence. "Congress has been pretty enthusiastic about the idea of ALJ independence," said Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue, adding that only "a handful" of judges have approval ratings above or below average. "They can't tell an ALJ how to decide cases, but they can make sure they follow the agency's policies." said Ethel Zelenske, government affairs director for the National Organization of Social Security Claimants' Representatives. The Social Security Administration reports about 8.4 million disabled workers nationwide get an average monthly benefit of $1,069. Another 8.1 million low-income disabled people with little work history get about $500 a month in Supplemental Security Income. More than 2.9 million people applied for disability-worker benefits in fiscal year 2010, up 38% over the past five years, agency figures show. To cope with the increase, Social Security has added about 200 judges in the past five years and streamlined the process of reviewing claims. The average wait time for a decision has steadily dropped, from a peak of 532 days in August 2008 to 354 days last month, agency data show.

TRAC responds to SSA's response

To be fair, the SSA did respond to TRAC's study-report, and TRAC's response to that can be found here. Just remember, we can help connect you with a compatible, trained attorney who can help you with your case--if nothing else, it's possible that an experienced attorney might be able to steer your case toward a more reasonable outcome.