Judges Who Rubber Stamp Disability Claims Are Bankrupting the System
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The Fiscal Times
June 10, 2014

Several judges within the Social Security Administration are in hot water for allegedly “rubber-stamping” billions of dollars worth of disability benefits from the nearly insolvent program without properly reviewing each case.

A new report released by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Tuesday paints a troubling picture of how some judges are approving disability insurance at an alarming rate—in some cases without even holding hearings to determine whether someone should be eligible for the program.

Under the law, administrative law judges are responsible for reviewing cases for people who have filed an appeal after being denied from the program at least twice. The report shows that overall federal judges are approving about 58 percent of these cases—awarding benefits at a lifetime average of $300,000 per person.

Related: 5 Things You Still Don’t Know About Social Security

But at least four judges highlighted in the report have approved more than 90 percent of their cases between 2005 and 2013—leading to hundreds of millions of dollars in benefits.

"In essence, these judges rubber stamped nearly every claimant before them for a lifetime of benefits at taxpayer expense," the report said.

Judge Harry Taylor, who has served the agency for 25 years, has approved 94 percent of his cases—68 percent of which were approved without holding a single hearing. In congressional testimony, Taylor told lawmakers that he makes it “a point to stay balanced and keep an open mind on each case until it is closed.”

Related: The Government Entitlement Program That’s About to Dry Up

The report cited a 2013 audit of Taylor’s work, which revealed that the majority of his cases contained opinions and assessments from medical experts that were “inconsistent with his findings of disability.” The Oversight report also noted that since 2007, Taylor’s colleagues have expressed concerns about his personal conduct.

Several accused him of sleeping at work, which led to a 14-day suspension. He has continued to be accused of violating numerous agency policies and was recommended for suspension last year, however that is still pending. Meanwhile he continues to “decide a full load of cases.”

Likewise, judge David Daugherty had an overall allowance rate of nearly 99 percent before he retired in 2011. He awarded benefits to 8,413 people—totaling about $2.5 billion in lifetime benefits--nearly half of those were awarded without holding a hearing.

The report suggests that some judges are approving cases at a high rate to attempt to reduce case backlogs and processing times. The average processing time for a hearing in 2007 was 512 days. In 2012, it was down to less than one year.

Of course, not all judges are adhering by these practices. The report notes that overall allowance rates have significantly fallen in recent years—from 72 percent in 2005 to 56 percent last year. 

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, released a Democratic  memo on Tuesday claiming that agency "has significantly improved its oversight" of the judges, as well as expanded training to improve their performance. The memo also says the Social Security Administration has taken steps to "sharpen disciplinary procedures against judges who fail to comply with agency policies, and improved efforts to prevent improper payments and detect fraud."

Still, the interest in how the Social Security Administration doles out benefits has come under the spotlight recently as the program grows closer and closer to insolvency. According to the latest estimate, it will run out of cash by 2016. If that happens, people on disability insurance will receive a 20 percent cut in their benefits.

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Washington Correspondent Brianna Ehley, based in D.C., covers Congress, government agencies and spending issues, health care, and tax and economic policy for The Fiscal Times.