Report: Charleston judge rubber-stamps disability claims
A Charleston judge testified before a congressional committee Tuesday about his record of high allowances for Social Security disability benefits from 2005 to 2013.
Social Security Administrative Law Judge Harry Taylor awarded disability benefits to 8,277 people during those years, according to a U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform report.
The report summarizes an investigation by committee Republicans of “systemic waste and abuse at the Social Security Administration,” and specifically implicates “rubber-stamping disability judges” in the approval billions of dollars in lifetime payments from the cash-strapped program, according to The Associated Press.
Taylor awarded disability benefits to 8,277 people between 2005 and 2013, which adds up to $2.5 billion — $300,000 per person — of federal lifetime benefits, the report states. Taylor has a 93.8 percent allowance rate for such benefits.
Three other judges were questioned Tuesday by the committee: Judge Gerald I. Krafsur, of Tennessee, who awarded 99 percent of cases; Judge Charles Bridges, of Pennsylvania, who gave benefits to 95 percent of claimants benefits; and, James A. Burke, of New Mexico, who had a 95.7 percent approval rate.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., asked Taylor about the amount of “on-the-record” allowances he made during the eight-year period — 5,982 out of 8,770 decisions. On-the-record allowances are those that don’t require a hearing. Judges base their decisions on what is contained in claimant files, including medical records.
“I can’t imagine that in three-quarters of the cases coming before you, you don’t find compelling evidence … that would require holding a hearing,” Speier said to Taylor.
Taylor told the committee he agreed to consider removing cases from his docket for on-the-record consideration “in order to meet our office productivity count.”
“It’s going to be dependent upon the specifics of the case as to whether that can be conducted on the record,” Taylor said.
Charleston Social Security and workers’ compensation attorney Michael Miskowiec said on-the-record allowances aren’t as common now as they were three years ago.
“The reason for the on-record process is to fix the problems of cases that should not have been turned down in the first place,” Miskowiec said.
One claimant Miskowiec has spoken with has frequent kidney stones and is “heading towards dialysis,” he said.
“Do you think she needs a hearing?” Miskowiec asked. “No. It’s obvious in the medical records that she’s disabled. And if that’s the case, why do you need a hearing?”
Claimants are seen by ALJs only after being twice denied benefits by state agencies, Miskowiec said. Those first two levels are “on paper,” and claimants might get physical or psychological exams by state-contracted doctors, Miskowiec said.
“The reason that there’s a much higher approval rate at the hearing level is, judges are getting actual testimony about [claimants’] day-to-day functioning and their symptoms,” Miskowiec said of the appeals process.
Miskowiec questioned why the committee wasn’t also investigating judges with low allowance rates, which he said is “more problematic.”
“Because if you don’t get approved and you should have been approved, you can’t pay your mortgage and you become homeless,” Miskowiec said. “You can’t pay for food or medical bills, and those, I think, are bigger problems.”
While Tuesday’s hearing focused on four judges, the report raised questions of oversight and accountability at the Social Security Administration. The report states the agency “made no effort to monitor whether its ALJs were considering the entire case record and making policy-compliant decisions.” It also stated the agency “failed to monitor whether ALJs were appropriately awarding benefits” when making on-the-record allowances.
The report cites comments from Regional Chief ALJ Jasper Bede — Taylor’s supervisor — that Taylor’s work is “sloppy.” Referencing a 2011 formal review, the report states Taylor “never elicited testimony from medical experts” and said his decisions lacked rationale. The report states Taylor’s work was “of poor quality and out of compliance with agency policies.”
The report also brings up Taylor’s alleged office misconduct, including multiple reports of inappropriate conduct with female employees and sleeping during staff meetings and hearings. Taylor denied allegations of sexual harassment during the hearing, and said he did not recall falling asleep during a February 2009 hearing. When asked if he has slept while on the job, Taylor said he had problems due to a sleeping medication he took.
“It was keeping me drowsy in the morning,” Taylor said.
Taylor isn’t the only West Virginia ALJ whose conduct has come into question. The report discusses ALJ David Daugherty, a Huntington judge who retired in 2011 following questions raised about his relationship with Kentucky lawyer Eric C. Conn.
A 2013 report from the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee accused Daugherty and Conn of scheming to approve more the 1,800 cases from 2006 to 2010.
Daugherty’s allowance rate from 2005 to 2011 was 98.6 percent with a half-billion dollars of benefits to Conn’s clients, according to this most recent report.
Formal charges were filed against Daugherty in May, alleging he improperly assigned Conn’s cases to himself, and provided a monthly list to Conn indicating medical evidence that would be needed to reach a favorable decision in specific cases, according to an earlier AP report.
Miskowiec said he doesn’t think judges and attorneys in Charleston have any sort of deal to make more benefit allowances.
“I have no doubt that at least in the Charleston office there is no problem with any collusion between the judges and the lawyers,” Miskowiec said. “Not to my knowledge is that going on anywhere in an office I work in.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Reach Rachel Molenda at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5102.