When an applicant for Social Security Disability is denied benefits, he or she has the option of appealing that decision. That process entails a hearing before an administrative law judge who is employed by the Social Security Administration. While the appeals process is fairly standard, SSA judges are given a great deal of lenience, and may generally hear and decide cases as they see fit. While the majority of judges are fair and reasonable, one office has become the subject of a class action lawsuit amidst claims that it decides SSD appeals based on bias.
Among the 166 SSD offices in California and across the country, the average rate of denials at this stage of the SSD application process is 36 percent. However, in the Queens, New York, office, the eight administrative law judges share a rejection rate of 50 percent, which is the highest in the state and the 10th highest in the country. Among the five judges that are named in the new lawsuit, the rate of denials is 63 percent.
While the rate of rejections is likely not enough to bring a lawsuit, the plaintiffs claim that it is the five judges' manner of hearing and deciding cases which has motivated their case. SSD attorneys say that their clients are often denied benefits based on their income, race, or nationality. The SSA provides translation services at hearings, but the five judges are accused of using the applicants' lack of inability to speak English against them.
Further, the plaintiffs say that the judges are unnecessarily harsh and insulting when they are questioning. The judges are also accused of making legal and factual errors during the court hearings or in their decisions.
It will be interesting to see how far this case proceeds. We will update our blog with any new developments.
Source: New York Times, "Suit Alleges Bias in Disability Denials by Queens Judges", Sam Dolnick, 12 April 2011