March 8, 2015

Disability Claim Denied? Find the Right Judge

Mark J. Warshawsky

Former Senior Research Fellow

Ross Marchand

Director of Policy for the Taxpayer's Protection Alliance
Summary

To all parties involved in a trial, the slam of a gavel should indicate that justice has been served. Unfortunately, this is often not the case with Social Security disability appeals. A system designed to serve society’s vulnerable has morphed into a benefit bonanza that costs taxpayers billions of dollars more than it should. The disability trust fund will become insolvent in 2016, and Congress would be wise to begin much needed reform.

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To all parties involved in a trial, the slam of a gavel should indicate that justice has been served. Unfortunately, this is often not the case with Social Security disability appeals. A system designed to serve society’s vulnerable has morphed into a benefit bonanza that costs taxpayers billions of dollars more than it should. The disability trust fund will become insolvent in 2016, and Congress would be wise to begin much needed reform.

A disability applicant whose claim is rejected during the Social Security Administration’s first two stages can appeal the decision to administrative-law judges. These judges must impartially balance the claims of the applicant against the interests of taxpayers.

Over the past decade judicial impartiality has declined significantly, as many administrative-law judges uncritically approve most claims. In 2008 judges on average approved about 70% of claims before them, according to the Social Security Administration. Nine percent of judges approved more than 90% of benefit requests that landed on their desks.

Do nine out of every 10 applicants appealing denied claims need societal support? There are reasons for skepticism. The data show that judges who are generous in granting benefits are consistently generous over time—which is suspicious, since each year they should hear a random set of new cases. The more discerning judges—those who award benefits less than 90% of the time—are more unpredictable from year to year.

Former Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue, who took office in 2007, made much-needed changes. Incompetent incumbents saw their influence diluted by new judges drawn from fresh candidate lists. Judicial decisions are now randomly reviewed to ensure that the court remains impartial and fair to taxpayers. Judges were limited to hearing 1,000 cases a year (the figure has since been lowered to 700), and individuals are allowed only one disability application at a time.

Mr. Astrue’s reforms have produced good results. In 2011 judges with award rates exceeding 90% heard a mere 4% of all cases, a 63.6% decline from 2008. But Mr. Astrue’s term expired in 2013, and these changes can easily be undone, either intentionally by future administrators, or unintentionally as bad habits slip back into the system.

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