Buffalo, NY — The Social Security Administration (SSA) is beginning a three-year pilot program that will allow SSA to schedule hearings for Social Security Disability (SSD) cases instead of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) who will hear the case. This program, which begins August 9, 2010, will not apply across the board, but only to certain ALJs who have been found to schedule too few hearings, contributing to the current backlog of SSD cases.
Nationwide, there is a backlog of more than one million claims, with a typical wait time of 442 days before a claimant receives a decision on their claim from an ALJ. Buffalo ranks 137th in the country for backlogs, with an average wait time of 574 days to have a hearing, and Rochester (an office recently separated from the former Buffalo region) ranks 59th in the country for backlogs, with an average wait time of 414 days.
“The SSA emphasized that they will not take over the scheduling for all ALJs, only individuals who have been found to need help in scheduling hearings in a timely manner,” said Jeffrey Freedman, senior partner, Jeffrey Freedman Attorneys at Law and a member of the National Organization of Social Security Representatives (NOSSCR). “Evidently they found there was one ALJ, for example, who had not held a hearing in several years.”
SSA has implemented several strategies to reduce the backlog, which grew when the SSA was underfunded from the mid-2000s to 2009. The agency also plans to hire 226 new ALJs and commensurate support staff this year, with each new and existing ALJ striving to reach 500 or more dispositions each year.
“As a claimant’s representative I have been extremely concerned about the backlog and the time people must wait to receive benefits, which can be financially devastating,” Freedman said. “However, initially NOSSCR expressed concern that the SSA might be stepping on ALJ decisional independence in taking over scheduling duties for ALJs.”
The SSA has stated though, that it will not exercise this pilot program without first consulting the appropriate Hearing Office Chief Administrative Law Judge to determine if there are any reasons the SSA should not to take over scheduling of hearings for a particular ALJ. Such reasons would include: an ALJ on leave for an extended period or insufficient support staff to prepare hearings. The SSA anticipates exercising this program will be a rare occurrence.
“There are some issues such as: coordinating schedules of all the hearing participants including claimants, claimants’ representatives, expert witnesses, and hearing recorders; and availability of hearing rooms, but the SSA says it will take these into consideration,” Freedman said. “It is my hope that this move will help reduce the backlog and result in more claimants receiving benefits sooner.”