Washington, DC – Recently, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued the first of two reports looking at Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) who are outliers because of the number of cases they have or have not handled or the number of awards they have handed out. The report is in response to a bipartisan request on June 16, 2011, from Members of the Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee requesting the Social Security Administration’s (SSA’s) Inspector General to review ALJ workloads, adherence to Agency policies and procedures, and related monitoring. The request was made in the wake of a Wall Street Journal article exposing the practices of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) in a West Virginia hearing office who granted awards in 1,280 of the 1,284 disability cases he decided.
“As Chair of the Social Security Subcommittee, I am extremely troubled by the enormous freedom this ALJ had in assigning himself cases – and then rubberstamping approval for nearly all of them with no accountability or oversight,” said Sam Johnson (R-TX).
“This report is a real eye opener. How can we trust the fairness of ALJ decisions when even some of their own co-workers say that the decisions could be influenced by the ALJ’s own political views and personal biases? While ALJs must be free to do their jobs without agency interference or reprisal, they are supposed to follow the rules, not make their own. The Subcommittee’s hearing series on securing the future of the disability insurance program will ask the tough questions and seek the right answers in order to ensure that the public is served fairly and that precious taxpayer dollars are not wasted,” added Chairman Johnson.
The key findings of the report, “Congressional Response: Oversight of Administrative Law Judge Workload Trends,” are summarized below:
ALJ Productivity: In Fiscal Year (FY) 2010, the number of cases handled ranged from a low of 1 to a high of 3,620 against the agency benchmark of 500 to 700 cases annually, which was met by 59 percent of ALJs. Reasons for the wide range of cases handled include motivation and work ethic, as well as administrative factors like staffing levels and case development.
ALJ Allowances: In FY 2010 the average award rate was 67 percent, with a low of 8.6 percent to a high of 99.7 percent. The huge differences in award rates were attributable largely to ALJ independence and discretion, and hearing office demographics, including age and education of those seeking benefits and locally available work. The OIG also found that, according to hearing office staff, “decisional independence and discretion could be influenced by an ALJ’s background, previous work history, political views and predispositions.”
According to the report, ALJs who handled a high number of cases also tend to have a high award rate whereas ALJs with low award rates generally handled fewer cases than their peers.
Management Controls and ALJ Oversight: The report also included OIG findings on case processing and management controls, oversight of ALJ workload, and ALJ discipline. The SSA management focuses primarily on hearing office processes rather than ALJ performance so as not to appear to interfere with ALJ decisional independence. The report noted that the agency had commissioned a study by the Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS) to examine the SSA’s adjudication processes more thoroughly in order to reduce ALJ variances and improve the quality of ALJ decisions.
The OIG concluded that the agency should give more attention to monitoring outliers in ALJ performance and stated that the ACUS study should help in ways to address the variances.