Oversight Report Finds Disability Programs’ Rubber-Stamping Judges Waste Billions

June 10, 2014

WASHINGTON – Today, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., released a staff report titled, “Systemic Waste and Abuse at the Social Security Administration: How Rubber-Stamping Disability Judges Cost Hundreds of Billions of Taxpayer Dollars.”

The report examines the prevalence and impact of administrative law judges (ALJs) with so-called “red-flag” allowance rates that exceed 75 percent of decisions. ALJs review disability appeals for individuals who have previously been denied benefits, generally twice, in previous agency reviews. The report found that between 2005 and 2013, “red-flag” ALJs placed 1.3 million individuals on federal disability, at a lifetime cost of approximately $400 billion.

The report also reviews case studies of three ALJs with allowance rates higher than 90 percent and excessive annual dispositions: ALJ Charles Bridges, former ALJ David Daugherty and ALJ Harry Taylor. Combined, the judges have awarded nearly $10 billion in lifetime benefits since 2005. According to the report, “These ALJs awarded benefits in nearly every decision they made, issued an extremely large number of allowances without holding a hearing, and were subject to numerous complaints from employees within their offices.”

The Social Security disability programs, which are administered by the Social Security Administration (SSA), have grown unsustainably over the past two decades and now enroll nearly 20 million people. The Social Security Board of Trustees and the Congressional Budget Office estimate that, without reform, the Social Security Disability Insurance trust fund will be depleted in 2016.

Key findings:

•        Between 2005 and 2013, over 1.3 million people were placed on the program by ALJs with an annual allowance rate in excess of 75 percent. During that period, the overall allowance rate for ALJs was 65.8 percent, a seemingly high average allowance rate for cases that have already been denied.

•        The Social Security Administration failed to assess the quality of decisions made by judges with high allowance rates. Despite recognition among ALJs that judges with heavy case loads cannot properly consider the evidence, the SSA took no action to evaluate the quality decisions from judges who were deciding a high number of cases, even if judges issued decisions without hearings.

•        ALJ Charles Bridges approved 95 percent of the cases he reviewed and awarded approximately $4.5 billion in lifetime benefits from 2005-2013. An internal agency review found that 60 percent of a sample of ALJ Bridges decisions could not be supported by the evidence. The review also found ALJ Bridges failed to utilize vocational experts at hearings and often asked them questions only after he had declared his decision to award benefits.

•        ALJ David Daugherty had an allowance rate of nearly 99 percent and awarded approximately $2.5 billion in lifetime benefits between 2005 and his retirement in 2011. A 2011 internal review found that out of a random sample of 128 decisions, ALJ Daugherty only held one hearing that lasted longer than five minutes. Colleagues complained for decades that ALJ Daugherty violated time and attendance policies, conducted “sham hearings,” dismissed vocational experts and colluded with claimant representatives.

•        ALJ Harry Taylor approved 94 percent of his cases and awarded around $2.5 billion in lifetime benefits from 2005-2013. An internal review found the majority of ALJ Taylor’s decisions contained medical expert assessments that were not consistent with his ultimate findings of disability. ALJ Taylor’s colleagues complained that he fell asleep at work and during hearings; however, no disciplinary action was taken until May 2011- four years after the first allegations.

Click here to read the full Committee staff report.

Click here to watch the Oversight Committee hearing on the disability determination appeals process today at 9:30 a.m, which will feature testimony from ALJ Bridges and ALJ Taylor.

On Wednesday, June 11th, at 9:30 a.m., the Committee will hear testimony from Acting SSA Commissioner Carolyn Colvin.

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