Report Confirms Social
Security Judges Operate with Virtually No Oversight or Accountability
April 19, 2012
The Office of Inspector General (OIG)
issued the second of a two-part report identifying Administrative Law
Judges (ALJ) who are considered outliers because of the number of their
disability decisions rendered either favorable or unfavorable. The
report comes in response to a June 16, 2011 bipartisan request from
Members of the Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee asking the
Social Security Administration’s (SSA’s) Inspector General to review ALJ
workloads, adherence to Agency policies and procedures, and quality
reviews. The Members made that request in the wake of a Wall Street
Journal article exposing the practices of a West Virginia ALJ who
granted awards in 1,280 of the 1,284 disability cases he handled.
Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Sam Johnson (R-TX) said, “ALJs are
supposed to be making their decisions on behalf of the Commissioner of
Social Security, but this report confirms that ALJs operate with
virtually no oversight and no accountability.
“On review, Social Security disagreed with 1 out of 7 ALJ awards but
couldn’t reverse those decisions. What kind of a process allows a bad
decision to stand because the decision-maker can’t be challenged? That’s
just not right. Given that the Social Security Disability Insurance
program will become insolvent in just a few short years, it is more
important than ever that we protect taxpayers and ensure that the
program pays benefits only to those who are truly disabled."
key findings of the report, “Congressional Response: The Social Security
Administration’s Review of Administrative Law Judges’ Decisions” are
The Administrative Procedures Act (APA) prevents an agency from
improperly influencing an ALJ’s decision and protects ALJ decisional
independence. However, ALJs must follow agency regulation, policy, and
procedure in making decisions. Under the law, the agency may not review
the decisions of a specific ALJ before their decisions are processed
(such reviews are referred to as pre-effectuation reviews).
Reviews after a decision is processed, or post-effectuation reviews,
along with special studies may target the decision of a specific ALJ
based on anomalies in productivity or allowance rates. Based on these
reviews, the SSA can issue directives to an ALJ for policy compliance;
take disciplinary action; or identify training needs to bring ALJs more
closely into alignment with Agency policies and procedures.
Recently, the SSA conducted three types of reviews of ALJs’ decisions.
Two of these involve a selected sample of cases to determine if
regulations, policies, and procedures have been followed and also to
identify training needs. The third was a series of special
post-effectuation studies based on anomalies of decisions by seven ALJs
that came to the SSA’s attention. Out of these special studies
performed, one ALJ was identified as not following polices and
procedures, was corrected, and became compliant.
The OIG concluded that the SSA has authority to review ALJ decisions but
faces legal restrictions in conducting those reviews. Changes to current
law would be needed to allow the SSA to review and correct decisions of
specific ALJs based on unusually high or low allowance rates.