Judges complain that Social Security ‘quota system’ for cases hurts taxpayers

Joe Davidson
Columnist May 1, 2013

A group of federal employees has filed a lawsuit to get less work.

That doesn’t seem like a good public relations strategy these days, but the workers say they are trying to save taxpayer money.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

Here’s the situation.

The Association of Administrative Law Judges says the Social Security Administration imposes “illegal quotas” on the number of cases that judges, a.k.a. ALJs, hear involving disability claims. SSA requires them to hear 500 to 700 claims a year, according to the association.

That’s “absolutely not” true, according to Michael Astrue, the immediate past SSA commissioner. Hearing 500 to 700 claims annually is a goal, he said in a phone interview. “There is not a quota system.”

Astrue is the one who is wrong, said Randall Frye, the association’s president and an administrative law judge in Charlotte. “We have documentary and testimonial evidence that will show that the goals are in fact quotas.”

This seems like more than a semantics dispute, but that’s for the court to decide. Meanwhile, the ALJs say the “quotas” interfere with their “decisional independence” and denigrates the right to “a full and fair hearing for disability claimants, many of whom are in desperate need.”

Words aside, anything that hampers the right to a fair hearing is a very important issue that the agency and the court should seriously consider. But unfortunately, perhaps more than what is right or what should be, it is the argument about dollars and cents that rings bells in Washington these days.

“When a judge finds in favor of a claimant, the average lifetime disability payment exceeds $300,000 per individual,” according to the association. “The disability program pays benefits averaging $1,111 a month; with the money coming from the Social Security payroll tax all workers pay. Notably, program costs reached a staggering $132 billion in 2011.”

With quotas “many administrative law judges find themselves pressured to grant more claims than they otherwise would, because a decision awarding benefits is less complex and time-consuming than a decision which denies benefits — a fact that the Social Security Administration itself acknowledges,” the association added.

SSA declined to comment and referred questions to the Justice Department, which said only that it is reviewing the complaint.

Their reticence was not shared by Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security. At a hearing Friday, Johnson said he was “outraged” by the judges’ complaint. They don’t hear as many cases as they should in his view.

“Let me be clear: No one’s telling any judge what decision to make, so their independence is protected,” he said, according to a transcript of the hearing. “And despite what the union argues, in fiscal year 2012, 79 percent of judges were hearing at least 500 cases a year. Seventy-nine percent, not very good.”

Frye said Johnson’s remarks are “wrong . . . insulting,” reflect “shallowness . . . and a lack of understanding” about what the judges do.

Bottom line: They don’t want to be treated like assembly-line workers turning out one widget after another. The pressure “to decide quickly regardless of the complexity of individual cases . . . adds up,” they say, and not just in money.

Frye said: “The cost to the Social Security Trust Fund, taxpayers, and the public as a result of the illegal quota system is enormous. The current system also deprives claimants of their constitutionally protected right to procedural due process. Morale among administrative law judges and hearing office staff is dismal, both as a result of the constant pressure to sacrifice quality for quantity, and as a result of enforcement and disciplinary action taken against those who do not submit to the quota.”

Disciplinary action?

“No judge has ever been punished for not meeting the goals that we set,” Astrue said. “They are goals, not quotas.”

Apart from the disputed terminology, the judges make a strong case for setting SSA’s disability fund on more solid financial footing. Citing the Social Security Trustees, the association’s statement said the fund “is headed for insolvency by 2016. Because the disability fund is barred from running a deficit, insolvency will trigger a 21 percent cut in benefits to 11 million Americans with disabilities, including reductions in benefits to qualifying spouses and children.”

One way to protect the Treasury and people with valid claims, Frye said, “is to end the quota system. Quotas are the result of poor management which, when combined with fiscal, political and other extra-judicial considerations, result in exactly the type of pressures [that are] anathema to decisional independence.”

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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