The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Social Security reassigns leader accused of being impaired at work

The Social Security Administration's main campus in Woodlawn, Md., in 2013. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

A senior leader at the Social Security Administration who was investigated over reports that she was impaired on the job has been reassigned to a new, nonmanagerial role.

Theresa Gruber, a career deputy commissioner who was overseeing a staff of 9,000 and a $1.2 billion budget in the hearings and appeals operation, is now instead serving as a senior adviser to acting Social Security commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi, according to an announcement issued to department staff Monday and obtained by The Washington Post.

The reassignment follows a Post report showing that the Social Security’s inspector general found earlier this year that Gruber had displayed “significant anomalies” at work over the course of at least a year, including slurred speech in which she “appeared intoxicated.”

Top Social Security official keeps job after reports of being impaired at work

Following the report, a bipartisan group of lawmakers on the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees, with oversight of Social Security, pressed agency leaders for action, according to congressional aides. Kijakazi also has faced heightened scrutiny as her agency has struggled to provide timely service after restarting its field operations this spring after a more than two-year closure during the pandemic.

Gruber did not respond to a request for comment on her reassignment. Mark Hinkle, a Social Security spokesman, said in an email that “due to privacy mandates we cannot discuss personnel matters.” He did not respond when asked whether Gruber, who is paid approximately $180,000 as a senior executive, is keeping her salary.

In her new role, Gruber will conduct an agencywide assessment of Social Security’s troubled disability benefits program, which is struggling with a massive backlog of initial reviews of applications. Among her priorities will be “to remove barriers to customer access” and employee career development, the announcement said.

“Terrie’s depth of knowledge about SSA and experience with greatly reducing the hearings backlog makes her uniquely qualified for this assignment,” Kijakazi wrote.

Gruber’s deputy, Joe Lytle, was appointed acting head of the department she formerly led — the Office of Hearings Operations, which runs one of the largest administrative judicial systems in the world. Its judges are tasked with issuing decisions on appeals involving retirement and survivor and disability benefits for poor and elderly Americans.

The concerns about Gruber’s conduct were outlined in an internal report by the office of Inspector General Gail Ennis that was not publicly released. It was based on testimony from six witnesses on Gruber’s staff. Witnesses told investigators that Gruber’s comportment led them to wonder whether she had been drinking. Gruber, 53, is also diabetic, the report noted, a condition that, when poorly treated, can cause irritability, disorientation or slurred speech.

The allegations by witnesses were corroborated to The Post by three members of Gruber’s senior staff.

But she remained on the job five months after Kijakazi received the investigation — and after complaints to investigators that Gruber was continuing to act erratically.

Social Security officials defended Gruber’s work over a long career and said they had “confidence in the Office of Hearings Operations’ leadership.”

President Biden named Kijakazi acting commissioner more than a year ago, but he has not nominated a permanent leader. Senators have pressed her for action on the disability backlog and Gruber’s leadership, according to congressional aides.

“The Finance Committee has raised concerns with the agency about the claims backlog and related staffing issues,” a committee spokesman said in an email.

The allegations about Gruber’s behavior on the job were widely known among her senior staff, according to multiple people familiar with the situation.

“Despite several years of good work, Gruber’s recent actions caused great consternation,” George Gaffaney, an administrative law judge in Gruber’s former department based in the Chicago region, said an in interview. “Judges are constantly subject to minute scrutiny by the agency and resentment over no action being taken against her was rampant.”