It seems everyday there is another report about a Social Security claimant who fought for decades to receive benefits. This type of story should be rare, however the frequency with which it occurs is staggering. Claimants could fight for years after filing their claims, appealing denials of benefits, sometimes all the way to federal court. In many cases, even Federal Court isn’t the final stage if the Judge remands – or sends the case back – to the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) who initially heard the case for consideration of new information and a new hearing. This process can be especially frustrating when the ALJ’s decision is based on insufficient or erroneous conclusions, or simple boilerplate language that offers no real analysis.
Federal judges in Wisconsin have taken notice of a problem with ALJ’s denying Social Security benefits without sufficient reasoning, rationale or evidence and are sending a message to the Social Security Administration, Administrative Law Judges and the U.S. Attorneys who defend these cases in federal court: Get your act together!
In the early part of 2013, two decisions were issued from the District Courts of Wisconsin reprimanding the Social Security Administration and ALJ’s for issuing poor decisions and the U.S. Attorneys office for issuing poor decisions and then defending them in federal court rather than voluntarily remanding them.
In Bunnell v. Astrue, Judge Crabb chastised the SSA ALJ for using boilerplate language as part of the reasoning to deny a claim for SSDI based on a credibility determination. This boilerplate language provides none of the analysis required by law and prevents reasonable review of the Judge’s rationale. For this reason, claimants must appeal an adverse decision.
When federal cases are ultimately filed, the local U. S. Attorney’s office represents the government. The US Attorney’s office has the authority to voluntarily remand cases rather than defend them. Judge Stadtmueller in Fresmuth v. Astrue harshly criticized the US Attorney’s office for not exercising this authority in the particular case but also in general. Judge Stadtmueller cited the significant cost to taxpayers not only because it costs time and resources for the court and attorneys, but also because Plaintiffs in these cases can recover attorney fees.
We can only hope that the SSA has heard these Wisconsin judges and judges across the county, and will instruct ALJ’s to provide better written, thoroughly reasoned cases rather than unnecessarily deny benefits which then have to be appealed.