Social Security Disability Judge retires during investigation

A Social Security Disability judge subject to multiple investigations because of his disproportionately high approval rate of disability benefits retired last week. The story of the judge’s high disability approval rate has created the impetus for an overall review of the methods that Social Security Disability judges use to determine approval of disability benefits.

In May the 75-year-old administrative law judge was placed on leave and an investigation into the history of his decisions began soon after. The judge is based in Huntington, West Virginia and decides Social Security Disability Insurance appeals cases. During 2010, the judge approved all of 1,300 disability cases that came before him except for four. In 2011, the judge awarded disability benefits in all 729 cases he heard. The average approval rate for Social Security Disability judge is 60 percent.

The judge has denied any missteps or abuses of the system in making his decision. He attributes his high approval rating to a broken Social Security Disability system and lawyers who know how to create a case that automatically wins. Social Security officials who have worked at the same office as the judge have said that top Social Security officials encourage approvals in order to reduce the steep backlog of disability cases.

At the same, Social Security officials outside of the local office say the judge is an anomaly among the 1,500 judges who hear disability benefits cases each year. Recent data on disability benefits cases that is now available online shows there are multiple judges who bat much higher and much lower than average approval rating. According to the data, there are dozens of judges who approve 85 percent of their cases and numerous judges whose approval rates are less than 50 percent.

The difference in approval ratings throughout the country has created a sense of unfairness and many applicants feel that approval depends on the judge who hears the case.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, “Social Security judge retires amid probe,” 7/18/11

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