In August of 2015, the Association of Administrative Law Judges sent a Newsletter and President’s Report to Ms. Theresa Gruber, Deputy Commissioner of the Social Security Administration’s Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR). The letter detailed a litany of complaints about ALJ workload and morale in hearing offices around the country.
The Problems at ODAR
The letter begins by describing the deterioration in working conditions in the hearing offices over the past several years in very stark language:
“The damage to our adjudicatory system, and the workplace where judges and staff provide due process hearings to the American people, has been severe during the past six to seven years. Professionalism in most of our Hearing Offices has been eliminated, replaced with a production line approach of bringing a diminished level of justice to our fellow citizens. In fact, many judges and staff compare our work environment to the sweatshops at the turn of the last century.
Regrettably, during this same period of time, our labor-management relationship with ODAR management has been acrimonious.”
It is disheartening for disability claimants and their representatives to hear ALJs comparing their working conditions to those of turn-of-the-century sweatshops. While this description is no doubt an exaggeration, it nonetheless sheds light on why so many claimants feel that they are not being treated fairly by the system: ALJs and their staffs are overworked, the pressure to deny cases and work through a crushing workload is real, and the end result is a system that fails in many, many cases to safeguard the due process rights guaranteed to every American.
It is equally troubling that ALJs and ODAR management seem unable to work collaboratively for the good of the claimants waiting patiently for a decision.
A Possible Path Forward for ALJs and ODAR
Despite the discouraging language quoted above, the letter does go on to make sixteen specific recommendations to improve ALJ performance and efficiency. Some ideas are sensible, including bringing recently retired ALJs back to help the clear the backlog of cases awaiting a decision, which the letter puts at a staggering 1 million claims. It also suggests reestablishing the senior advocate program, which would allow advocates working in the hearing offices to recommend particularly strong cases to be decided ‘on-the-record’ – that is, without the need for a hearing.
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New Challenges for SSDI Applicants Could Arise
Other recommendations are decidedly less welcome by claimants and their representatives, as they would make the already difficult process of being approved for disability benefits even harder. For instance, the ALJs recommend closing the record immediately after the hearing is over, as they find it “disruptive” to have to revise decisions to incorporate the new evidence. This means that any new evidence submitted after the hearing – even critical evidence which might affect the outcome of the case – would not have to be addressed by ALJs in their decisions. The practical effect of this rule change would be that even more claimants would be denied because ALJs could ignore important evidence simply because it was submitted a few days or weeks after the hearing. This would then force those claimants to first wait another 18 months or more for their case to be appealed, and then wait many more months to have a second hearing scheduled!
Our Opinion on the Situation and Possible Remedies
Any changes being contemplated by the Agency or Congress should first and foremost be concerned with fairness for the claimants. The program exists to provide a lifeline for disabled individuals who have paid into the system and want to live their lives with dignity. Their rights to a fair hearing should not be sacrificed in the interests of less “disruption” to the ALJs or the Agency.
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