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Approval rate scrutiny spurs SSA judge's resignation

After an accusatory article in the Wall Street Journal called attention to the unexplained high rate of disability case approvals in one West Virginia county, that district's chief Social Security Administration judge has officially stepped down from his post. Although his decision was voluntary, it is indicative of the increasing pressure on judges who decide Social Security Disability cases.

There are approximately 1,500 SSA administrative law judges in California and throughout the United States. On average, such judges award SSD disability benefits in about 60 percent of disability appeals that are heard in their courtrooms.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Judge David Daugherty in Huntington, West Virginia, had approved a benefit award in each of the almost 730 decisions he made during the first six months of the 2011 fiscal year. In addition, Judge Daugherty heard more cases than an average SSD judge, which is also largely unprecedented throughout the SSA administrative judge system.

Following the Journal article, Judge Daugherty was placed on indefinitely administrative leave while the inspector general of the Social Security Administration investigates his high approval rating. In addition, several Congressional delegations have undertaken independent investigations.

In connection with the allegations against Judge Daugherty, the chief judge of the Huntington SSA office has stepped down from his position. Judge Charlie Andrus, who has held his post since 1997, has not publicly commented on his reasons for relinquishing his position, but it is likely that the media attention and subsequent federal investigation had something to do with his decision.

As Congress continues to grapple with the impending Social Security shortfalls, it is likely that these accusations and investigations will become more common. What do you think? Should judges be scrutinized so closely, or should they be trusted?

Source: Wall Street Journal, "Social Security Judge Steps Down From Post," Damian Paletta, 9 June 2011

1 Comment

What really needs investigation is why approval rates in West Virginia are so low. Only 26.4% of applications are approved on initial claim and 10.2% on review (33.9% total assuming all cases were reviewed). In New Hampshire the approval rates are more than twice as high - 51.9% and 36.4% (69.4% total assuming all cases were reviewed). (FY 2008 figures.)

Given that people are less likely to apply in the first place when the odds of approval are 3:1 against approval, and even less likely to submit an appeal when the odds are 9:1 against success, the remaining claims are far more likely to be meritorious than in high-approval states. It is quite possible that all the cases that came before Judge Daugherty would have been approved in a state such as New Hampshire. Unless the IG can point to cases of clear and egregious error, this should not have been cause for the Judge's retirement.

The way that this was handled makes it clear the administrative law judges are not independent - as any creditable judiciary must be - rather, they are creatures of the agency who can be compelled to rule as the agency demands in order to meet case metrics and financial targets .

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