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SSD Decision-Makers: The Value of ALJs

In our last blog post, we discussed the uninformed criticism that Social Security Disability (SSD) administrative law judges have faced in the past year. In this post, we will look at the impact that various SSD decision-makers have on the program.

Whether or not a Social Security Disability application is approved on appeal can depend, in part, on the administrative law judge hearing the case. Yet, the same can be said about the reconsideration process. According to an article by John C. Dubin and Robert E. Rains, New Hampshire's Disability Determination Services (DDS) granted 49.5 percent of all initial claims on reconsideration in 2010, while Mississippi's DDS only granted 24.9 percent of claims. Even when the Social Security Administration (SSA) decides reconsiderations, the number of approvals varies upon location (18.4 percent in Atlanta and 58.4 percent in New York).

These numbers not only show the disparity but also reflect one important fact: state disability agencies feel pressured to deny claims and deny them frequently. Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) do not experience the same level of pressure.

However, that lack of pressure does not mean that ALJs feel comfortable approving all SSD claims. In 2011, ALJ approval rates were at 58 percent, one of the lowest rates in a quarter century. Compare that to 72.3 percent in 1994.

Instead, ALJs are able to look more objectively at the facts of each case. They also usually have more facts (including medical evidence) to help them make their decisions than the agencies that handle reconsiderations. For example, administrative law judges can ask vocational experts and medical experts to testify at the hearings, giving them more information on which to make a decision. The state agencies, on the other hand, must usually rely on state medical advisors.

The administrative law judges also get the opportunity to speak with the claimants, which means that claimants are able to explain any ambiguities or clarify confusing parts of their application.

In sum, administrative law judges are an important part of the SSD process and are needlessly under attack. Their higher approval rates may merely reflect the greater level of information they have about an applicant's disability.

Source: American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, v. 34, No. 3, "Scapegoating Social Security Disability Claimants," Jon C. Dubin & Robert E. Rains, Mar. 2012.

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