(This is the ninth post in this series about the independence of administrative law judge who will preside over your Social Security disability appeal.)
In a previous post, we discussed the case of Association of Administrative Law Judges, Inc. v. Heckler,in which the Association of Administrative Law Judges sued the Social Security Administration, asserting the right of its administrative law judge members under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) to be free of agency interference with and influence over their independent adjudications of Social Security claims. In commenting on what was then known as the Bellmon Review, the deciding judge in that case stated that SSA’s “unremitting focus on allowance rates in the individual ALJ portion of the Bellmon Review Program created an untenable atmosphere of tension and unfairness which violated the spirit of the APA”.
Years later, former Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue, under Congressional pressure, stressed as an agency priority the need to reduce the huge backlog in pending cases that was growing due to budget-cutting in SSA’s ODAR offices in 2005. Some ODARs were taking over three years to decide claims by the time of this intervention. The effort included introduction of improved technology to both aid and monitor ALJ productivity to reduce backlogged caseloads. It also included imposing production goals for a minimum number of cases that needed to be handled by each ALJ.
This time the Association of Administrative Law Judges took the low road. Acting in concert with Congressional Republicans, the association attacked the effort to make its members more productive. The theory advanced in arguing in the case was that making ALJ’s decide more cases was tantamount to making them issue more favorable decisions, and therefore violated the APA.
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals was where the case of American Association of Administrative Law Judges v. Colvin was ultimately decided in January, 2015.Noted jurist Richard Posner wrote the decision, stating that the administrative law judges’ remedy under the Administrative Procedure Act for interference with their decisional independence does not extend to the incidental consequences of a bona fide production quota.
While the unholy alliance between congressional Republicans and the leadership of the Association of Administrative Law Judges continues to provide ammunition for conservative members of Congress, the argument utterly failed to impress the Court of Appeals.
Freedom to deny more cases by being allowed to issue fewer decisions simply did not have the ring of constitutional freedom being at stake, as had the earlier case, and Judge Posner rightly found that this complaint that ALJ’s were working too hard just was not deserving of the protection of due process accorded as the fundamental due of all Americans.