The Delaware News Journal published several articles this week discussing the denial rates of Administrative Law Judges (ALJ) that work for the Social Security Administration. The focus of the series was on the Dover Delaware Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR). The articles noted that Delaware residents have faced a higher standard to prove eligibility for disability between 2005 and 2008.
The ALJ denial rates have serious implications on individuals that live in Delaware and have physical or mental disabilities. Because of the high denial rate, more Delawareans are approved at the initial application level than any other point in the Social Security Disability Process.
The Importance of Obtaining Legal Assistance Early
Since more Delawareans are approved at the initial application level, it is important to have help with your Social Security Disability claim as early as possible. The most significant change that I made in my practice since the Dover ODAR office opened in 2004, was actively representing more people at the initial application level. I discovered that clients denied by Dover ALJs could have been approved at the initial application level if additional medical evidence had been provided. When I started representing claimants in 2003, less than 10% of my clients were at the initial application level. Now more than a third of my cases are at the initial application level.
The initial application is important because you have a clean slate. No medical opinions have been provided that indicate that you can work, and you still have an opportunity to submit evidence that can be considered by the Disability Determination Service. If the State Agency Physician is able to review your treating physician’s medical opinion before providing his or her own opinion, it is more likely that your doctor’s opinion will be incorporated into the decision. Because of the importance of being approved early, I focus on building the strongest claim possible before my clients even apply for benefits. If you are approved benefits on your initial application, you never have to worry about the high denial rates of the Dover ALJs.
More Treatment is Necessary to Establish Disability with Dover ALJs
It is extremely difficult to be approved for benefits at an ALJ hearing in Delaware if you do not have specialist care. Even the Dover ALJs that have higher approval rates are unlikely to approve you for disability if you are only receiving treatment from a family physician. Although your family physician may be willing to treat you for every medical condition, it is important that you receive treatment that will improve your chance of being approved.
If you are suffering from a major disability, the Dover ALJs expect you to see a specialist for your condition. Family physicians are less likely to document symptoms to the same extent as a specialist. Since specialist limit their practice, it is also more likely that they will be aware of recent developments in your condition, and be able to offer treatment alternatives that may help. Having specialist care will make it more likely that you are one of the few that are approved if you eventually have to have a hearing in front of a Dover ALJ.
Your Treating Physicians must be Supportive
If your treating physician believes that you can work, it is unlikely you will be approved for Social Security disability benefits. I normally only accept new clients if a treating physician first documents limitations and explains how the limitations would interfere with your ability to work. If your treating physician is not supportive of your disability, the ALJ will only have the State Agency medical opinions to consider when deciding your claim. Since the State Agency medical opinions were likely the basis of your original denial, the Dover ALJs will cite the same opinions to deny you again.
Even when your treating physicians are helpful, it is still possible to be denied benefits. Several of the individuals featured in the New Journal had opinions from multiple doctors supporting their disability. I even routinely have had clients denied benefits when the opinions of Social Security Consultative Examinations supported their disability.
More Documentation is Necessary
Obtaining supportive medical opinions from your treating physicians is only the starting point in proving disability in Delaware. You must also be able to support your symptoms with objective medical evidence. If you have pain, you must have test results that establish the source of your pain. This is normal throughout the United States, the difference in Delaware is that the ALJs are often looking for you to have the tests repeated throughout the time that you are receiving treatment. It is not enough to have a test performed when you initially became disabled; the ALJs also want to see updated tests that are performed shortly prior to the ALJ hearing.
If you are experiencing pain, but have not had surgery performed, it is rare to be approved benefits by many of the Dover ALJs. Even if you had surgery, the ALJs will look at how invasive the surgery is when making a determination on whether you are disabled. Injections are not significant to most of the ALJs in Delaware, and if you are only taking medication for your condition and have not required more invasive care, it is unusual to be approved.
If you are suffering with a mental based disability, you must have treatment with a psychiatrist and a therapist/psychologist. If you fail to take medication, or abuse illegal drugs or alcohol, you have very little chance of approval (even if your doctor indicates that this is caused by your condition). If you are claiming memory or cognitive impairments, it is also important to have psychological and memory testing to document the severity of your symptoms. In my experience, individuals with purely mental based disabilities are rarely approved in Delaware unless they also have required hospitalizations for their condition.
Higher Costs to Pursue Claims in Delaware
Because of the higher standard of disability that we face in Delaware, I have noticed that the cost of pursuing disability benefits has skyrocketed between 2003 and 2009. The average cost in 2003 was below $150 at the ALJ level; today it is not abnormal to have costs of $400-$600. The reason for the increase is the additional evidence the ALJs are requiring. The ALJs want records from every doctor you have seen since your disability began (even if it is not relevant to your disability), and I often must request opinions from each doctor actively treating you. Since the ALJs do not like fill-in-the-blank forms, narrative opinions (that have cost as much as $1,000) are sometimes needed.
Additional costs are incurred for the additional treatment needed. If you have copays for every visit to your doctor, the additional care will result in more out-of-pocket costs. If you see additional doctors, it is also likely that additional tests and treatment will be suggested.
If you experience a unique condition that has flare-ups, it is important to notify your physician of every flare-up. Even when you have learned to manage your condition during flare-ups, it is important that the flare-ups be documented by your doctor. If your flare-ups are not mentioned in your treatment records, many of the Dover ALJs frequently find that the flare-ups did not occur at the frequency that you identified.
Dover ALJs do not Independently Review Your Disability
ALJs are supposed to independently consider all the medical evidence that is in your file and all testimony that is provided prior to issuing a decision. Before a hearing, it is not abnormal to submit over 100 pages of new medical records, and to provide medical opinions from treating physicians for the first time. Due to the length of time it takes for a hearing to be scheduled, normally the Social Security medical opinions in your file are at least one year old when the hearing is held.
The Chief ALJ of the Social Security Administration, Frank Cristaudo, stressed in the News Journal the importance of ALJs independence. He indicated, We allow the judges to make the decisions they think are appropriate. This stance is commendable, but many of the Dover ALJs fail to exercise their independence.
Although there is so much new information available for the first time at the ALJ hearing, it is common for Dover ALJs to ask, “Why was the Disability Determination Service (DDS) wrong in denying the claim?”. I must be prepared to explain why the State Agency Physician’s medical opinion does not adequately address your limitations (although it is obvious that these doctors never had the opportunity to review your new medical documentation), and I have been reminded by one ALJ that the State Agency Physicians are not biased like treating physicians.
This is a concern because the ALJs are not independently considering your disability. When the majority of Dover ALJs ask for Vocational Expert testimony, they ask the Vocational Experts to only consider limitations that were identified by the State Agency Physician, and when they issue a decision, the State Agency Physician (that never examined you) is normally awarded the most weight. It is rare for the ALJs identified by the News Journal to believe you or your treating physician. Even when they approve benefits, it is usually based on information that was previously provided by the State Agency Physician or a Consultative Examination Physician.
Approved for Less Benefits
The News Journal article briefly provided an example of one individual that was ultimately found disabled, but it was determined that his disability did not begin until 2 years after his employment ended. It is common for decisions from the Dover ALJs to be partially favorable. This means that although you are approved for benefits, the ALJ will find that your disability was not “severe enough” to cause you to become disabled until sometime after you originally stopped working.
ALJs in other areas commonly find that a claimant was disabled when their job ended, even if additional care was not received until a later date. For example, if you are suffering from depression and lose your job because of the condition, but did not start seeing a psychiatrist until after you had to be hospitalized 6 months later, other ALJs will find that your condition was severe enough for you to qualify since your job ended. With many Dover ALJs, you would not be approved until the date that you had to be hospitalized.
If you have a spine impairment, and went through therapy and injections before it was determined that you needed surgery, most ALJs would realize that your doctors wanted to try less invasive treatment before considering surgery. However, with the Dover ALJs discussed in the News Journal, I have had several clients that have not been approved until the date of their surgery. Although these individuals had experienced pain severe enough to prevent them from working for several months (to several years), the ALJs determined that they were not actually disabled until surgery was necessary.
One Dover ALJ is also routinely finding that individuals are only disabled for a brief period. An ALJ normally only awards a closed period of disability if an individual’s condition has actually improved enough to allow them to return to work (or the individual admits that they have the ability to return to work). This specific Dover ALJ routinely issues partially favorable decisions finding that a person was only disabled for a period of 12-18 months. The ALJ will indicate that an individual has improved even if the treating physician does not believe the symptoms resolved.
The News Journal did not provide specific details on the number of fully-favorable versus partially favorable decisions in the article, but I have information for each of the ALJs for fiscal year 2008. The ALJ that was discussed the most by the News Journal had an overall denial rate of 59.2% in 2008, but only issued fully-favorable decisions 22.3% of the time. The remaining 18.5% were partially-favorable decisions. For individuals age 18-49, this same ALJ issued fully-favorable decisions 10.3% of the time, and issued partially favorable decisions 19.9% of the time.
This is alarming because when an onset date is voluntarily amended, or an individual agrees to a closed period of disability, this counts as a fully-favorable decision. This suggests that if individuals did not voluntarily make these changes, the ALJ would have a much higher partially favorable rate (or possibly even deny more claims). Therefore, even some of the people that are approved by the ALJ with the highest denial rate are not actually receiving all the benefits they deserve.
Fewer People Offered Representation
Because the practice of law is a business, it is important that attorneys are able to make a profit when representing individuals. Although I would like to help everyone that contacts me, I must focus my limited resources on helping those people that have the most realistic chance of being approved for benefits. When fewer people are approved for benefits, it becomes harder to offer representation to all the people that need it.
The higher denial rates make it less likely that I can offer representation if your condition is not well documented. When I started practicing in 2003, I would routinely take cases where my client did not have adequate documentation of their disability. I would work with my client to help them establish the necessary medical care, and I would file appeals while they strengthened their case. I realized that the individual may be denied one or more times, but I knew that I could help them improve their future chance of approval.
Now when I meet with a potential client, I am unable to devote my resources to claims that are poorly documented. I have had multiple clients denied benefits that have had 4 or more supportive medical opinions from treating physicians. If it is difficult for someone with the support of all of their doctors to be approved for disability benefits, it is nearly impossible for an individual with little or no medical support to be approved.
The result of this change is that Delawareans that would have been offered representation in the past must now pursue benefits without legal assistance. All of the Delaware attorneys that I speak with that handle Social Security Disability cases are also being more selective in accepting clients. I currently only begin to represent 20% of individuals that request my help. If all of the Delaware attorneys are being more selective in offering representation, the net effect is that fewer claimants are represented.
Claims with Supportive Evidence are Not Being Appealed
If you are denied by an ALJ, you have a right to appeal your decision to the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council typically takes anywhere from 6 months to 2 years to issue a decision. In 2008, Appeals Council denied 73% of claims filed, and only approved 2%. Although Appeals Council remanded 22% of cases, this simply means that your claim will be sent back to the same ALJ that denied you previously. In my experience, the Dover ALJs are no more likely to approve you after your case has been remanded by the Appeals Council.
After being denied by the Appeals Council, you can file an appeal in United States District Court. Unless you can prove that you have very little resources and/or income, it cost $350 to file an appeal to United States District Court. The United State District Court for Delaware issued 30 Social Security Disability decisions in 2008, and remanded 43% for a second hearing (no outright reversals were issued). It took the District Court an average of 527 days to issue a decision in 2008. Between 2004 and 2008, an average of 27 Delaware District Court appeals were filed each year. During the same time, Dover ODAR denied an average of 642 people per year for disability benefits.
The only way that you are assigned a new ALJ for a second hearing is if you can prove bias or your original ALJ is no longer available. I have never had a case assigned to a new ALJ for a second hearing in Dover. If you are successful at getting a second hearing based on an Appeals Council appeal, it is likely that it will take a minimum of 18 months after the ALJ’s original decision before you get a new decision. For cases that are remanded from District Court, it is likely that you will have waited for 3 or more years before you receive another decision.
During the time that you are waiting for the appeals process, you are not receiving benefits. I spend approximately 20 hours preparing a file for the first ALJ hearing. If I have to file an Appeals Council appeal, I spend an average of 10 additional hours working on your claim. District Court appeals take me between 20-25 hours. When a case is remanded for a second hearing, I usually spend at least 10 more hours preparing the case for a second hearing. This does not include the time that my staff spends preparing your file and giving you updates.
When I decide to appeal claims to Appeals Council and United States District Court, I am making a significant investment in my time. If it is not likely that I can obtain a better decision by filing an appeal, I am unable to continue to pursue the claim even if the ALJ technically made errors in your decision. During the entire time that you are waiting for your claim to be decided, I am also not receiving payment for my services. If I spend 40 hours working on an appeal that is not going to be successful, I have spent an entire week of my time that I cannot devote to obtaining additional clients.
Because I am running a business, I have to make a cost-benefit analysis before I agree to take action on your behalf. Since there is only a small chance of receiving benefits after being denied by an ALJ, I appeal only a small number of claims past the ALJ level. I look for ALJ mistakes that are so obvious that I believe that 100% of claims that I appeal to Appeals Council or District Court should be approved.
My main consideration when I decide to appeal is not whether I believe that you are disabled (I believe that 100% of people I represent at hearings are disabled), but whether I believe that you could be approved if you have a second hearing. Based on the small percentage of cases that are filed in Delaware District Court (only about 4% of ALJ denials are appealed to District Court), it appears that other attorneys also take a similar approach. This means that even individuals that have supportive medical evidence and should have been approved benefits are not always appealing their decisions after an ALJ denial.
I am disturbed by what has happened at the Dover ODAR office because it overall is limiting your access to the legal system. Attorneys that were handling large numbers of Social Security Disability Claims in the past are reducing their caseload. Individuals that are unable to work and should be found disabled are being denied benefits. I am reluctant to appeal adverse decisions from the ALJs because it is unlikely that you will be approved for benefits even if your case is remanded. Instead of taking all clients that should be found disabled according to the law, I instead have to focus my attention on taking clients that can be approved based on how the Dover ALJs are applying the law.
I realize that there will always be variances in decision-making, the problem that I had hoped that the News Journal would highlight, is that the variance in Dover is not caused by ALJs exercising their independence, but by some ALJs misapplying the law. I personally have had at least 25 decisions where the ALJ found that my client was not credible because they attended their hearing and responded to questions. (If my client had not attended their hearing, the case would have been dismissed.) I am hoping that the attention that the Dover ODAR office receives from the News Journal articles will at least result in a consistent application of the law so that I can tell my clients that they will receive a fair hearing regardless of the ALJ assigned to their case.
News Journal Articles:
- Disability claims denied more often in Delaware
- After a lifetime of hard labor, body and mind are beaten up
- Woman felt like a ‘beggar trying to get something’
- With a family full of suffering, benefits don’t go a long way
- Hopeless situation sends mom to depths of despair
- Agency refuses to release information about complaints
- Dual roles of judges a source of tension
- Claim denials haunt some to death’s door”
- She fears judge is ‘just waiting for me to die’
- Disability denials troubling to leaders
- Routinely rejecting disability claims deplorable
This article was written by Steven Butler. Steven is a partner at Linarducci & Butler, PA and his practice is limited to Social Security Disability/SSI claims. Steven offers free initial consultations for Social Security Disability/SSI claims to residents of Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. To schedule a consultation with Steven, please use the Linarducci & Butler Contact Form or call 302-613-0707 to schedule an appointment.