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The Association of Administrative Law Judges (AALJ) envisions changes within SSA’s adjudication program to improve processes and increase customer satisfaction. Our customers are the American public, taxpayers, and the other branches of the federal and state governments. They expect efficient and legally correct determinations of whether applicants are qualified to obtain federal benefits, such as retirement, disability and survivors. Federal administrative agencies combine executive, rulemaking, and judicial functions. Agencies administer programs created by Congress. They adopt regulations to implement the laws they administer. Finally, they adjudicate controversies concerning agency actions.
AALJ represents the judges who adjudicate claims involving Social Security. People have a Constitutional right to petition the government for redress of grievances, and their petitions necessarily place claimants in conflict with SSA. Claimants are entitled to a fair and prompt hearing incorporating traditional due process, before an unbiased judge. SSA must significantly improve its processes to provide claimants prompt, correct, and fair determinations.
Since the SSA adjudication program was initiated in the 1930’s, many changes have occurred. Claimants once invariably pro se, are now mostly represented by lawyers. SSA still does not provide an advocate to represent the taxpayer. Constraints imposed by new rules, court decisions, and policy, make adjudication more formal, but SSA still has no rules of practice or procedure. Medical issues are more complicated but SSA fails to enhance expert testimony, or adopt rules which modernize disability criterion and represent contemporary economic and workforce conditions. Technology boosts potential for optimal management, but SSA remains committed to hierarchical and regional supervision, inadequate employee remote work locations, restricted access to information, and non- uniform policies.
AALJ disagrees with SSA’s current model for managing adjudication. Because of the backlog, agency reallocation of spending, and failure to assign experienced program managers, SSA has adopted changes to disability adjudication which have serious affects. Other agencies have evolved to separate adjudication bodies, headed by an autonomous chief judge, that provide independent judges to hear adversarial cases where the agency is a party. SSA continues to rely upon inquisitorial hearings held by an ALJ subject to agency whims – sometimes denying the claimant or the American taxpayer a fair, complete or impartial hearing. More disturbing SSA seems to have adopted a claims determination model employed by disability insurance companies. This model fails to provide due process or an effective ability to petition for redress of grievances. Private insurance carriers have only a contractual relationship with their insured’s. SSA is a federal agency required to provide Constitutional due process.
SSA’s fifty years’ experimentation with adjudication has failed. Every failed program was instigated by managers who are not judges, and have never conducted a hearing. SSA’s current chief judge has less than two years experience as a judge, and virtually no prior litigation experience. SSA’s history of Bellmon reviews, Numeric Performance Goals, Hearing Process Improvement Plan, FITS, E-DIB, and many other failures demonstrates not one successful innovation in management of its adjudication programs. AALJ believes an agency which is itself a party to adjudications cannot be fair to the other party. SSA designed the hearings process to wear down the claimant – not provide a fair and prompt hearing. Claimants often die or endure years of privation because of bureaucracy.
SSA’s management philosophy must change. Hierarchical management is obsolete, and highly structured components engaged in line reporting to various remote levels of authority without specific expertise is no longer appropriate. The Legislative and Executive branches have directed that federal agencies involve employees in the process of change, and decentralize operations to improve efficiency. SSA resisted these changes, refused to cooperate with employee representatives, added more structure to its adjudication – thereby binding the hands of judges to fashion effective remedies.
In addition to changing management philosophy, AALJ envisions process changes which can be summarized: