AALJ Legislative Agenda 2014 - Prevent SSA from Destroying Judicial Independence

Executive Summary by the Association of Administrative Law Judges

The Real Issue . . .

And Why Further Restriction of Judicial Independence in the Social Security Administration Is a Bad Idea

The Social Security Administration’s poor stewardship of the disability program has created the crisis that now undermines the public’s view of the integrity of the program.  The compromised integrity of the adjudicatory process in SSA is not a result of judicial misconduct, but is instead a result of the lack of management competence.

The now infamous Huntington, West Virginia fiasco involving Judge Daugherty and a claimants’ representative, Mr. Eric Conn, was in no way a surprise to Agency management, who were well aware of what was going on:

    • Judge Daugherty was removing cases from the dockets of other judges;
    • He was adjudicating the bulk of claims filed by claimants represented by Mr. Conn; and
    • “Paying” (granting the appeals of) almost all of the claims before him. 

Judges and staff in that office had complained for years about Judge Daugherty’s conduct, to the Hearing Office Chief Judge, Regional Chief Judges, and SSA’s Inspector General. All of these managers literally ignored those communications and recklessly allowed the situation continue for years.  Why?  Because the Hearing Office, the Region, and SSA administratively profited from the large number of dispositions Judge Daugherty generated, ignoring gross improprieties in order to meet its organizational quotas. 

SSA now complains that the ‘problem’ its own managers created and allowed to fester, is instead a result of “judicial independence,” such that it cannot control its Judges.  This is neither accurate nor true.

When SSA believes that a Judge is not properly adjudicating cases or is otherwise presenting a ‘problem,’ it has the means to rectify the situation through the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). The SSA has taken disciplinary action on multiple occasions to remove or suspend Judges who did not schedule enough hearings; issue enough dispositions; issue timely decisions; adhere to regulations and policy; or who have engaged in unprofessional or unbecoming conduct.  It is well-settled law that a Judge can be disciplined and removed because of performance, including performance during the course of an adjudicatory proceeding, and that a Judge is not immune from review for incompetence or other failings; indeed, the MSPB has upheld discipline and removal proceeding against SSA Judges.

There is no need to further restrict judicial independence of Social Security Administrative Law Judges, because it is clear that, whenever it wishes to do so, the Social Security Administration is well-equipped – within the bounds of the Administrative Procedure Act – to address the conduct of Judges who abuse their judicial independence. 

There is, however, a real concern that restriction of judicial independence will allow the Agency to control the outcome of cases (as it has done in the past) causing even greater erosion of the integrity of the system.  Indeed, it was this very control by Federal agencies in the 1930’s which heralded the need for the current Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”).  The APA gave rise to much needed reform within the Executive Branch agencies to ensure due process rights for the American public.  Now is not the time to return to a bygone and less fair era.  Now is the time for real reform.  The attached document makes these points clearly. 

The Solution: