The Disability Committee of the Bar Association of Erie County (BAEC) recently hosted a presentation from officers of the Office of Hearings Operations (OHO) to update attorneys who handle Social Security Disability (SSD). Michael Devlin, Hearing Office Chief Administrative Law Judge, and Mark Starosielec, Hearing Office Director, spoke to attorneys and their support staff regarding the backlog of cases and the process of video hearings.
“The backlog of SSD applicants waiting to have hearings before administrative law judges (ALJs) has been a concern over the past 15 years,” said Christopher J. Grover, attorney, Jeffrey Freedman Attorneys, PLLC, and chair of the Disability Committee of BAEC. “Mr. Starosielec reported the backlog in the Buffalo/Rochester region has decreased for the first time in several years, however, it still sits at 8,710 cases, with claimants typically waiting 24 months to have a hearing scheduled.
“Then, after their hearing, they wait one to six months before they receive a decision and begin receiving benefits.”
Judge Devlin emphasized the importance of a newer agency ruling that claimants and their representatives have the primary responsibility for providing evidence of disability and must submit all evidence no less than five business days prior to a scheduled hearing. The SSA does maintain a record for each case, but that record is largely based on the evidence provided by the claimant. In some instances, attorneys can be referred to the Office of General Counsel for sanctions if this rule is not followed.
“This means law offices handling SSD claims need to be knowledgeable about the medical documentation the ALJs require to make a decision in favor of claimants, and that they submit it in a timely manner,” Grover said.
The local OHO recently lost two Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) to retirement, and there is no plan to replace them, Starosielec reported. Instead, the office will hire three staff attorneys who will have the ability to make decisions on more self-evident cases, which should help further reduce the backlog of cases being heard by ALJs. Judge Devlin said the staffing change allowed the OHO to return to their desired ratio of ALJs/staff attorneys.
“The agency began doing video hearings several years ago in an effort to speed up wait times and lower the number of claims in the backlog — and that has proven to be successful,” Grover said. “Judge Devlin and Mr. Starosielec reported at the meeting the Jamestown and West Seneca video hearing locations have been running smoothly, and Niagara Falls and Olean will be up and operating soon.”
ALJs from Lawrence, MA, and the National Hearing Center also handle video hearings for this region. Starosielec said the Buffalo OHO was recently approved to send 700 cases to other offices, which may help reduce the backlog locally.
In addition to chairing the Disability Committee, Christopher J. Grover, an attorney with Jeffrey Freedman Attorneys, PLLC, handles SSD claims and bankruptcy filings. Jeffrey Freedman Attorneys, PLLC, has been assisting clients in Buffalo and Rochester with Social Security Disability and Supplemental Security Income, personal injury, personal bankruptcy, Veterans Disability, long-term disability, Workers’ Compensation and employment discrimination for more than 38 years.