In a recent article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Judge Marilyn Zahm, national president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges (who serves the Office of Hearings Operations in the Western District of New York — OHO WDNY), stated that “there is definite pressure from the agency (Social Security) to get judges to find against workers.” This pressure (combined with staffing shortages and an aging population) has greatly contributed to the more than 1.1 million disability claims backlogged in the system.
“In WDNY, from the initial application through the hearing stage it typically takes about 30 months for a claimant to get a decision on benefits,” said Kevin J. Bambury, attorney, Jeffrey Freedman Attorneys, PLLC. “This is an unconscionable way to treat individuals who have paid into a system that guaranteed them a basic income, should they become ill or injured and be unable to work.
“The toll it places on these workers, in terms of financial difficulties, physical and mental health is tremendous.”
In fiscal 2010, ALJs approved 62 percent of claims and denied 25 percent (with the remainder dismissed for a variety of reasons) compared to 2016, when 46 percent of claims were approved and 35 percent were denied.
“In the WDNY the vast majority of judges work very hard to promote justice in spite of being short staffed, facing this pressure from Social Security, 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.
“However, as Judge Zahm points out, local ALJs face pressure from the SSA to deny claims. If a particular judge doesn’t have the courage to ignore the pressure, then it is the tax payers in WDNY who suffer.”
Judge Zahm has suggested a method of streamlining the paperwork for cases in non-controversial cases where a judge decides in favor of the worker. The streamlining process would eliminate the review of medical evidence that is not directly related to the disability.
“So far, the agency has not responded to her suggestions,” Bambury said. “This type of inefficiency, combined with short staffing, and the fact that we have an aging and increasingly unhealthy workforce are the causes behind the backlog.”
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 said.