If you are considering applying for Social Security disability benefits, it is important to know the role a disability judge plays. Social Security 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 courts presided over by a disability judge. 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 disability judge job descriptions. Further, new wording will make it clear that judges are subject to supervision by the agency. These alterations could affect approximately 1,500 administrative judges.
Disparities in Disability Judge Rulings Triggered Previous Review in 2011
This isn’t the first time disability judges have come under scrutiny. The changes came after wide disparities in disability judge rulings came to light. The Journal reported that in 2011 it was found that dozens of judges ruled for Social Security disability benefits in 90% of their cases. At the same time, others denied Social Security disability benefits in more than 80% of their cases. These disparities between judges caused the agency to tighten enforcement as a result. Judges only awarded benefits in 67% of their cases in 2010, the Journal reported. That number fell to 56% last year.
During a Congressional hearing, Glenn Sklar, deputy commissioner for the SSA, said: “The allowance rate right now is probably at a 40-year historic low.”
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. At the same time, other hardworking judges stayed within the rules. According to the blog, the SSA disciplined 58 disability judges between 2007 and 2011. The administration cited numerous reasons, the most common being failing to rule on enough cases.
Will These Changes Also Influence SSDI Applicants?
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 declined in recent years, thus creating a backlog of cases. According to the Journal, the recession increased demand for Social Security disability benefits, with the program now having approximately 11 million beneficiaries.
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 Labor Department position and now runs a mediation service. The dwindling Social Security disability judge industry leaves many department offices understaffed. This issue only adds to the problem of hearing and properly ruling on cases in a timely manner for applicants.
Changing Social Security disability judge job descriptions and increased scrutiny may allow more applicants to win benefits. However, it may also increase average wait times to secure benefits.