Social Security Administration officials contend it’s just an “expectation” that its administrative law judges should decide 500 to 700 cases annually. But the judges say the disciplinary actions lodged against those who fall short indicate “quota” is a more accurate description.

A government watchdog report says the productivity rules imposed on the judges, whose job is deciding complaints over disability benefits, should be reviewed to determine whether the goals are reasonable.

Perhaps counterintuitively, the resulting rush to judgment to meet those quotas means they are more likely to rule in favor of beneficiaries seeking increased government payments, according to judges.

An overwhelming majority — 87 percent — of judges surveyed by the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan congressional agency, said the 500-to-700 goal is too high. In the June report, the GAO urged the Social Security Administration (SSA) to review its productivity requirements “and determine whether the expectations are reasonable.”

That’s the GAO’s way of saying maybe it isn’t.

In fiscal 2019, however, 81 percent of the judges met or exceeded the productivity requirement. But that percentage has fluctuated widely. In 2016, just 38 percent met it. Only 18 percent did in 2020, a year affected by coronavirus pandemic restrictions.

Administrative law judges, frequently called ALJs, are employed by agencies, in this case the SSA, and decide appeals from people who think the agency’s determination of a government benefit is not generous enough. The three agencies with the highest number of judges after the SSA — which at 1,350 has the most by far — do not have individual-level quotas.

Social Security officials told the GAO they “agree conceptually” with the watchdog’s recommendation to periodically review the annual productivity expectation. But, the report said, “SSA officials said they do not formally seek feedback from judges on the expectations. However, without feedback or other gauges of pressure, SSA lacks information that could help it appropriately balance timely case processing while maintaining high-quality work and employee morale.”

ALJ Larry J. Butler’s morale took a hit when he was placed on paid administrative leave three years ago as a step toward termination for allegedly failing to meet quota benchmarks. He remains on leave, while being paid $180,000 a year, as he appeals. “There were no grounds for putting me on leave,” Butler, of Fort Myers, Fla., complained by phone. The SSA does not comment on individual personnel matters.

The SSA reprimanded 48 judges for productivity-related reasons from fiscal 2008 through 2020, according to the report. Two of them were fired. Telework restrictions are the primary way the agency disciplines judges who do not meet productivity expectations, even though judges told the GAO that teleworking can improve productivity.

The quota was implemented to reduce a huge backlog of cases.

Citing SSA data, the GAO said the size of case files now is five times what it was when the quota was imposed in 2007, yet it has not been formally reviewed since then. The quota was implemented to reduce a huge backlog of cases. At the end of fiscal 2020, more than 418,000 requests for disability hearings were pending and the average wait for a hearing was about one year. As bad as that is, it’s better than the backlog high of 1 million-plus in 2016. “The agency had a fiscal year 2021 goal to eliminate the backlog, but due to the pandemic no longer expects to meet this goal,” the GAO wrote. More than 12 million adults and their dependents received about $185 billion in benefits from the Social Security disability programs as of December 2019.

Heavy case files fuel the backlog and the quota controversy.

“It’s not uncommon for us to have a thousand pages of medical records,” said Penny Loucas, a Cleveland administrative law judge since 2009. “My two cases on Monday, 4,000 and 6,000 pages. … When you have something like that, you should be given leeway to take your time to do it right. Take your time to do it right the first time so you don’t have to go back a second time. And that is where the quota system, the way it is currently imposed, does not give us that flexibility.”

Now, acting SSA commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi “is undertaking a thoughtful and comprehensive review of many of the agency’s policies and procedures, and this is a policy she will review,” said Mark Hinkle, an agency spokesman. “She is reviewing policies with the view that it is important to balance customer service to the public and expectations for our employees and unions.”

From the customer-service side, no one wants “to be judged by someone who feels pressure to simply skim the submissions in our case due to the need to meet a quota,” emailed Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works, which advocates for a strong Social Security program. “Today’s disability benefits cases, with the immense size of case files, are much too complicated for judges to carefully examine each one, if forced to do so under an artificial time constraint. The crushing workload on Administrative Law Judges is not a fair burden to put on these hard-working civil servants — and it’s even more unfair to the people applying” for Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income.

For those applicants, it might be unfair theoretically but not in practice.

The quota system, perhaps unwittingly, provides judges an incentive to rule in favor of beneficiaries.

Decisions favoring beneficiaries generally are accepted as final. The government does not appeal. However, most decisions that deny complaints are appealed by beneficiaries, two judges explained.

Does this encourage judges to rule for beneficiaries because the decision is not likely to be scrutinized by the SSA Appeals Council or a federal court?

“Absolutely, absolutely,” said Thomas Snook of Miami, who retired after 20 years as an ALJ.

Loucas, a regional vice president with the Association of Administrative Law Judges, agreed, saying “a favorable decision will more likely than not, with other things being equal, be issued more quickly. … The judge does not have to meticulously take his time, her time, to go through the 1,000 pages to find the information that is needed to support a favorable decision. … The person’s not going to appeal it. The government’s not going to appeal it. So no one’s going to look under the covers to see did you do a good-enough job finding the evidence to support this decision.”

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