WASHINGTON — Judges struggling to handle a surge of disability cases sometimes award benefits they might otherwise deny in order to clear cases faster so they can meet quotas imposed by the Social Security Administration, according to a lawsuit filed by the union representing the agency's administrative law judges.
The Social Security Administration says judges should decide 500 to 700 disability cases a year. The agency calls the standard a productivity goal, but the lawsuit claims it is an illegal quota that requires judges to decide an average of more than two cases a workday.
The lawsuit says the requirement violates judges' independence, denies due process rights to applicants and further strains the finances of a disability program that is projected to run out of money in 2016.
Once the trust fund that supports the disability program runs dry, the system will only collect enough money in payroll taxes to pay 79 percent of benefits. Congress could redirect money from the retirement program to shore up the disability program, as it did in 1994. But that would worsen the finances of the retirement program, too.
"Case quotas prevent judges from devoting necessary time to the most complex cases, resulting in waste and abuse," said a statement by Randall Frye, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges and a judge in Charlotte, N.C.
"Many administrative law judges find themselves pressured to grant more claims than they otherwise would because a decision awarding benefits is less complex and time-consuming than a decision which denies benefits," the statement said.
The lawsuit was filed by the union Thursday in federal court in Chicago. It names the agency and Acting Social Security Commissioner Carolyn Colvin as defendants. Colvin took over in February after Commissioner Michael Astrue's six-year term expired.
The union scheduled a news conference in Washington on Friday to announce the lawsuit.
An agency spokesman declined to comment. In an interview, Astrue disputed the union's claims.
"What's really happening here is that the judges' union doesn't want accountability of its members and it's been trying to sell this story to the media and to the Congress and to the agency for a very long time," Astrue said. "And no one's buying it because it's not true, and no federal judge is going to buy this story, either."
"There are a very small number of malcontents who want to litigate or put political pressure on the agency rather than do their work," Astrue said.
The union represents 1,400 administrative law judges. Its lawsuit describes a disability system in crisis.
About 3.2 million people applied for disability benefits last year, a 25 percent increase from a decade before. Claims have increased in part because of aging baby boomers. As people get older, they become more prone to disabilities.
Disability claims also typically increase when the economy sours. Some people who manage to work despite their disability get laid off and apply for benefits, while others apply out of economic desperation.
When people apply for Social Security disability benefits, their cases are initially reviewed by state offices, which reject about two-thirds of claims. If your claim is rejected, you can appeal to an administrative law judge. But the hearing process takes an average of 373 days — a little more than a year — according to agency statistics.
Astrue said the average processing time for a hearing peaked at 542 days shortly after he took over the agency. He said public outcry over the backlog led him to adopt productivity standards in 2007, which helped reduce the wait time.
The hearing process, which is closed to the public, is different from a civil lawsuit or a criminal trial. There is no lawyer for the government. Instead, judges are expected to be impartial decision-makers while protecting the interest of taxpayers and ensuring that applicants get fair hearings. Most applicants have legal representation by the time their claim results in a hearing, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit says judges are expected to meet their quota, regardless of how complicated their cases are, even though many case files exceed 500 pages. Judges have been disciplined for missing the quota, including formal reprimands and removal proceedings, according to the lawsuit.
"The pressure exerted on ALJs by the quota is reflected in the substance of their rulings," the lawsuit says. "Some ALJs respond by tending to grant more claims. For other ALJs, the quota impedes their ability to render carefully reasoned, impartial decisions based on a fully developed factual record."
Frye's statement says: "The cost of such decision-making adds up. When a judge finds in favor of a claimant, the average lifetime disability payment exceeds $300,000 per individual."
Astrue countered that approval rates actually dropped since he adopted the performance standards. In 2011, the approval rate was about 35 percent, down from 46 percent a decade before.
Nearly 11 million disabled workers, spouses and children get Social Security disability benefits. That's up from 7.6 million a decade ago. The average monthly benefit for a disabled worker is $1,130.
In 2011, Social Security disability paid about $129 billion in benefits.