Social Security Disability case judges have had rigorous caseloads for years, with many creating a significant backlog as a consequence. According to The Wall Street Journal, the Social Security Administration (SSA) is conducting a comprehensive reexamination of how judges reward disability benefits. The changes include altering job descriptions to give officials increased authority to oversee judges. Job descriptions currently contain the terminology “complete individual independence,” which creates challenges for the SSA. The Journal reports the phrase will no longer be included in job descriptions and new wording will make it clear that judges are subject to supervision by the agency. Approximately 1,500 administrative judges may be affected by the alterations.
This isn’t the first time disability judges have come under scrutiny. The changes came after wide disparities in judge rulings were revealed. The Journal reported that in 2011 it was found that dozens of judges ruled for benefits in 90 percent of their cases, while others denied benefits in more than 80 percent of their cases. These disparities between judges caused the agency to tighten enforcement at the time. Judges only awarded benefits in 67 percent of their cases in 2010, the Journal reported. That number fell to 56 percent last year.
“The allowance rate right now is probably at a 40-year historic low,” Glenn Sklar, deputy commissioner for the SSA, said at a congressional hearing in November, according to the Journal.
The LegalTimes blog noted two congressional committees examined how SSA judges rule on disability claims and how SSA leadership disciplines judges in mid-2011. During the hearing, the case was made that some judges didn’t take accountability for their actions, while others kept within the rules and were hardworking. According to the blog, 58 disability judges were disciplined by the administration between 2007 and 2011 for numerous reasons, the most common being failing to rule on enough cases.
For disability applicants, increased scrutiny of judges may be both positive and negative. While improving judge discipline can ensure disabled people receive benefits, it may also cause more judges to be terminated. The number of judges has been declining in recent years, which has created a backlog of cases. According to the Journal, the recession increased demand for SSD benefits, with the program now having approximately 11 million beneficiaries. In fact, the number of people in the program is set to continue increasing.
In an interview with the Center for Public Integrity, Russell Pulver, a former California-based administrative law judge for the U.S. Department of Labor, said it was increasingly difficult for him to handle his caseload.
“Each year I seemed to hear more cases and be given less help,” Pulver said. “I said, ‘I’m getting no love. I’m not staying around for this.’”
According to the Center for Public Integrity, Pulver voluntarily left his position with the Labor Department and now runs a mediation service. The dwindling number of judges is causing many department offices to be understaffed, which is only growing the problem of hearing and properly ruling on cases.
The changes to judge job descriptions and possibility of increased scrutiny may allow more applicants to be awarded benefits, but it may also increase case wait times.