In a recent article published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Judge Marilyn Zahm, national president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges of the Office of Hearings Operations (OHO) in the Western District of New York, stated: “there is definite pressure from the agency (Social Security Administration) to get judges to find against workers.” The OHO is the division of the SSA which handles hearings for Social Security Disability (SSD) claimants.
Since only 28 percent of claims are approved at the initial application stage, according to SSA statistics, the majority of claimants go on to request a hearing from an ALJ. The number of requests has resulted in a backlog of more than 1.1 million disability claims and has extended waiting periods for claimants to receive decisions on their cases, stated Kevin J. Bambury, attorney at Jeffrey Freedman Attorneys, PLLC.
“There are a number of factors contributing to the backlog, such as inadequate staffing levels at the OHO and an increase in the number of claims, which can be attributed to our aging population,” he said. “The long wait times to have hearings are taking a huge toll on applicants in terms of financial difficulties, physical and mental health.”
In the Western District of New York (WDNY—which includes Buffalo, Rochester and the surrounding counties) from the initial application to the hearing stage, it typically takes 30 months for a claimant to get a decision on benefits.
“It is very disheartening for claimants to wait so long for a hearing and then be denied benefits,” Bambury said. “As Judge Zahm points out, even our local ALJs are facing pressure from the SSA to deny claims. If a particular judge doesn’t have the courage to ignore the pressure, then it is the claimants in WDNY who suffer.”
Nationwide, in fiscal 2010, ALJs approved 62 percent of claims and denied 25 percent compared to 2016, when 46 percent of claims were approved and 35 percent were denied.
“The vast majority of judges in our district work very hard to promote justice in spite of being short staffed, facing this pressure from Social Security Administration (SSA), and the subjective nature of the claims put before them,” Bambury said. “Judge Zahm is a fair and courageous judge who is going above and beyond to correct a broken system.
Judge Zahm, who said she believes the pressure to deny arose after an incident of fraud was uncovered in 2011, has suggested a method of streamlining the paperwork for cases in non-controversial cases where a judge would clearly find in favor of the claimant.
“So far, the agency has not responded to her suggestions,” Bambury said. “As long as the inefficiencies and short-staffing continue we will have backlogs and long wait times. And as long as there is pressure on ALJs to deny claims at the hearing level, we will see claimants who do not receive a fair deal from a system they have paid into their entire working lives.”
It’s time to put pressure on top level Social Security administrators and Congress to find solutions to the problems and allocate the money necessary to implement the necessary changes, Bambury says.