WASHINGTON — Social Security's disability program is overwhelmed by so many claims that judges sometimes award benefits they might otherwise deny just to keep up with the flow of cases, according to a lawsuit filed by the judges themselves.
The Social Security Administration says the agency's administrative law judges should decide 500 to 700 disability cases a year. The agency calls the standard a productivity goal, but the lawsuit claims it is an illegal quota that requires judges to decide an average of more than two cases per workday.
"When the goals are too high, the easy way out is to pay the case," said Randall Frye, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges and a judge in Charlotte, N.C. "Paying the case is a decision that might be three pages long. When you deny benefits, it's usually a 15- or 20-page denial that takes a lot more time and effort."
The lawsuit raises serious questions about the integrity of the disability hearing process by the very people in charge of running it. It comes as the disability program faces serious financial problems.
The disability program's trust fund will run out of money in 2016, according to projections by Social Security's trustees. At that point, the system will collect only enough money in payroll taxes to pay 79 percent of benefits. That would trigger an automatic 21 percent cut in benefits.
Congress could redirect money from Social Security's much bigger retirement program to shore up the disability program, as it did in 1994. But that would worsen the finances of the retirement program, which is facing its own long-term financial problems.
The lawsuit was filed by the judges' union and three judges on Thursday in federal court in Chicago. It names the agency and Acting Social Security Commissioner Carolyn Colvin as defendants. Colvin took over in February after Commissioner Michael Astrue's six-year term expired.
The union announced the lawsuit at a press conference Friday in Washington. A Social Security spokesman declined to comment. In an interview, Astrue disputed the union's claims.
"What's really happening here is that the judges' union doesn't want accountability of its members and it's been trying to sell this story to the media and to the Congress and to the agency for a very long time," Astrue said. "And no one's buying it because it's not true, and no federal judge is going to buy this story, either."
"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 said.
The union represents 1,400 administrative law judges. The judges are hired by the agency but are supposed to act independently when they decide cases. More than 30 federal agencies employ administrative law judges, mainly to settle disputes between the agencies and people who are affected by agency decisions.
The Social Security Administration employs the most judges, about 1,500. The lawsuit filed by their union describes the disability program as "a system in crisis."
About 3.2 million people applied for disability benefits last year, a 25 percent increase from a decade before. Claims have increased in part because of aging baby boomers. As people get older, they become more prone to disabilities.
Disability claims also typically increase when the economy sours. Some people who manage to work despite their disabilities get laid off and apply for benefits, while others apply out of economic desperation.
When people apply for Social Security disability benefits, their cases are initially reviewed by state offices, which reject most claims. If your claim is rejected, you can appeal to an administrative law judge. But the hearing process takes an average of 373 days — a little more than a year — according to agency statistics.
Astrue said the average processing time for a hearing peaked at 542 days shortly after he took over the agency. He said public outcry over the backlog led him to adopt productivity standards in 2007, which helped reduce the wait time.
The hearing process, which is closed to the public, is different from a civil lawsuit or a criminal trial. There is no lawyer for the government. Instead, judges are expected to be impartial decision-makers while protecting the interest of taxpayers and ensuring that applicants get fair hearings. Most applicants have legal representation by the time their claim results in a hearing, the lawsuit says.
Frye said he has never awarded benefits just to clear a case faster, and he couldn't name any judges who have.
"It's hard for anyone to say a judge is willingly deciding cases incorrectly just to meet the quota," Frye said. "What they have told us is they are not reviewing all of the evidence, they are not developing the case as they should, and from that I think you can clearly see that the case may not be or could not be correctly decided."
The lawsuit says case quotes violate judges' independence and deny due process rights to applicants.
"Some ALJs respond by tending to grant more claims," the lawsuit says. "For other ALJs, the quota impedes their ability to render carefully reasoned, impartial decisions based on a fully developed factual record."
The lawsuit says judges are expected to meet their quotas, regardless of how complicated their cases are, even though many case files exceed 500 pages. Judges have been disciplined for missing the quota, including receiving formal reprimands and facing removal proceedings, according to the lawsuit.
Nearly 11 million disabled workers, spouses and children get Social Security disability benefits. That's up from 7.6 million a decade ago. The average monthly benefit for a disabled worker is $1,130.
In 2011, Social Security disability paid about $129 billion in benefits.
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