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Why Does It Take So Long To Get a Disability Hearing?

Our Social Security Disability clients are almost always stunned and disappointed when we tell them how long it will take for their case to be heard by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”).  As of July 2015, the nation-wide average wait time was 532 days from the time we file the appeal from your denial at the reconsideration phase, or more than a year and a half.  Why so long?  Mostly it’s a matter of sheer numbers and an overburdened and underfunded Social Security Disability system.

That system overload starts at the bottom.  The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) had not been granted adequate funding by Congress for many, many years.  By one estimate, their funding was over $4 Billion short between years 2000 and 2007.  From 2008 to 2010, Congress significantly increased SSA’s funding, and the results were good.  SSA hired thousands of new employees including ALJ’s and support staff, and the backlog of cases decreased along with average wait times to hearings.  That increased funding was short-lived however, and after 2010, the backlog and wait times started edging back up.  By late 2004, the backlog of pending cases just at the hearing level hit the one million mark, and by July 2015 it was over 1,050,000.  That is a staggering number; over one million citizens are waiting for their day in court before one of about 2,400 ALJ’s.  That math works out to about 437 claimants for each judge, and the number grows every day.

Each judge has to average about three decisions per day just to keep from falling further behind.  Furthermore, ALJ’s are not allowed to issue more than 720 decisions per year, a limit that was enacted to counter what was perceived as a tendency by certain “outlier” judges to just rubber-stamp awards of benefits without them being supported by medical evidence.  The more closely cases are examined by ALJ’s and their staffs, the longer decisions take.

The funding problem set forth above extends to the hiring and paying of ALJ’s.  Approximately 125 judges retire (or die) every year, so at least that many new judges need to be hired just to keep pace with this attrition, without taking into account the need for more total judges to handle the increased backlog.  SSA has not been able to keep up with this demand for new ALJ’s.  So, fewer and fewer total judges producing fewer decisions results in more and more cases in the backlog and longer wait times for hearings.

The statistics also suggest that, in addition to taking longer to get to a hearing, your odds of success once you get there keep getting worse, and this indirectly adds to the backlog as well.  In 2009, ALJ’s were awarding benefits to approximately 63% of the claimants whose cases they decided.  By 2014, that number had dropped to 45%.  When ALJ’s issue unfavorable decisions rather than favorable ones, it takes more time to prepare the decisions so that they are supported by sufficient medical evidence.   This adds to the backlog.

In one of our recent cases, our client was wrongfully denied her benefits by an ALJ after a hearing.  We appealed that judge’s denial to the Appeals Council, which then took over a year to render their decision that the ALJ had made a mistake.  It took the Appeals Council several more months to send the case back to the ALJ to schedule a new hearing to take new evidence so that the mistake could be fixed; and we just recently got the new hearing date scheduled.  By the time this case is heard the second time by this ALJ, it will have been over two and a half years since the original hearing date, and well over three and a half years since the claim was originally filed.  It is not an exaggeration to say that people literally die waiting for their hearings.  Sadly, we have several clients every year who pass away before their case is heard by an ALJ, leaving their families having to pursue the claim for them.

The Answer to Speed Up the Process

Many of our clients ask us what they can do to speed up the process of getting their case heard by a judge.  Sadly, and to our great frustration, the answer is usually “nothing.”  There are some developments in your situation that can result in your hearing date being scheduled sooner than average.  If your doctor says that your Illness is likely to result in imminent death; or if you are without and unable to obtain food, medicine or shelter; or if you are suicidal or homicidal; or if you are a “wounded warrior” injured while on active military duty since 10/01/01 with a 100% VA rating; we may (at the ALJ’s discretion) be able to get your case heard more quickly.  But, unless you fall into one of those categories, you will likely have to wait at least a year for your hearing.  Our only other standard advice to our clients is to contact their United States Senator or Representative’s office.  Sometimes a letter from that representative’s ombudsman (a government official appointed to report and receive grievances against the government) to the SSA can result in attention being paid to the case, but that is far from a guarantee.  The unfortunate, frustrating truth of the situation is that our clients have to hold on financially, by whatever means they can, until their day in court before a judge.

Then, as a final frustration in this process, once you DO have your hearing with an ALJ, in most cases you will not be informed of the judge’s decision that day.  Most judges will tell you that they want to review the evidence in light of the testimony they hear and then render a written decision.  That process takes, on average eight to ten weeks after the hearing before the decision is mailed to you in writing.

Our Social Security Disability system is far from perfect.  Our standard advice to our clients is to be thankful to live in a society and under a government that has such a system at all (many countries do not), and make use of the other resources available while we wait for our hearing in front of an ALJ.

(The source for the statistics cited in this article is the August, 2015 issue of the NOSSCR (“National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives”) newsletter “Social Security Forum.”)