Social Security benefit applicants in New York City’s borough of Queens knew there was a gauntlet to be run if they wanted to get their payments. Five administrative law judges who hear appeals there were notorious for their treatment of disabled people seeking government assistance. The five demeaned and belittled applicants, questioning them so harshly that some were moved to tears. Now, thanks to a class action lawsuit, those denied applicants could get a second chance in court with a more impartial judge.
A proposed settlement with the Social Security Administration would give the petitioners a new hearing but with a different judge. Many of the plaintiffs in this particular class action suit have been unable to work for years because of injuries and illness. Social Security has also agreed to appoint monitors to watch the claims process there and to make new policies that prohibit bias against applicants. The Queens, New York office was the nation’s toughest. Judges turned down nearly half of all applicants, compared to only 19 percent in neighboring Brooklyn. Most of those who were rejected are immigrants. The Social Security Administration will not admit any wrongdoing, which is part of the settlement terms.
Administrative law judges are different than the judges who sit in criminal and civil courts, These judges are hired by the federal government and can stay on the job as long as they want. Their job is to interpret Social Security’s mammoth pile of rules and regulations, and determine if an applicant was wrongfully turned down for benefits.
The five rude judges were evaluated by a group of federal appeals court judges and the report was not flattering. One was described as “intemperate, brusque, and unhelpful” and “a study in combative questioning , which hampered the truth-seeking process.” All five will have to be retrained. Nationwide, about 1,500 administrative law judges work for Social Security. One of the plaintiffs reacted to the settlement this way: “I can’t even breathe telling you how important this is. I’m in tears.”
Source: The New York Times, “Rejected disability claims in Queens may be reheard,” Mosi Secret, Jan. 11, 2013