A front-page article in the New York Times created quite a stir last week, resulting in a flurry of state and federal investigations which have led to the suspension of Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), David B. Daughtery, who formerly served in the Social Security Administration (SSA)’s office in Huntington, West Virginia. The article revealed that Daugherty approved 100% of the 729 cases he has heard so far this fiscal year. Furthermore, Daugherty approved 1280 of the 1284 cases he reviewed last year.
The reason these approval statistics have caused alarm to both federal and state regulators is that the average approval rating for cases appealed to a hearing is only 60%, or slightly more than half. This is still considered to be an extremely good approval rate. At this level of the appeal process, claimants have usually already been through two denials for Social Security Disability benefits, which forces them to provide more conclusive medical evidence in order to improve their chances for approval.
When approval rates are too high, as in the case of Daugherty, suspicions are raised that the ALJ is simply approving cases to get them out of the system. Many ALJs admit that the SSA’s tremendous backlog of cases has caused them to feel pressure to move cases through the system, in spite of the extreme importance of only approving legitimate disabilities. With the financial crisis facing the SSA, it is crucial that judges do their job well. If too many approvals are issued, it is probable that many of the individuals receiving benefits are not legitimately disabled and will receive precious funds which those with true disabilities deserve.
The SSA’s suspension of Daugherty while investigations continue is an extremely rare course of action. ALJs enjoy relative freedom from interference from the SSA, to allow the system to remain uncompromised. But in this case, the SSA considered the situation serious enough to call for Daugherty’s temporary suspension.
In spite of the accusations and continuing investigations, ALJ Daugherty insists he is innocent of pushing cases through the system, and has presented a written response swearing that all his rulings were based on solid medical proof. He says he doesn’t understand why he’s been suspended. The explanation for his high volume of approvals is that the lawyers he deals with are just getting too good at knowing how to present cases; he considers it a mere coincidence that all the cases he has seen this year have been approved. He also denies granting approvals to all the clients of a particular Kentucky lawyer as a favor.
With the high public notice this story has received, it is certain that lawmakers and federal regulators will be focusing their eyes on hearing offices across the country to uncover other potential abuses of the system. The results of the Daugherty investigation could mean stricter regulations and more scrutiny for ALJs, which many consider a huge step toward the improvement of the SSA’s troubled disability programs. Although the correction of this type of problem won’t necessarily ease the SSA’s case load, it will ensure that disability benefits are ending up in the right pockets, which in the end, benefits everyone.