The American Association for Disability Policy Reform    

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Padro v. Astrue

In April 2011, the Urban Justice Center filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that five judges in the Queens, New York hearing office were biased against applicants and mishandled cases, systematically denying benefits.   The allegations were laid out in an 83-page class action complaint (details).

The five judges were Michael D. Cofresi, Seymour Fier, Marilyn P. Hoppenfeld, David Z. Nisnewitz and Hazel C. Strauss.   The suit alleged that these judges  (1) conducted hearings that were "a far cry" from the required standards,  (2) used rationale that was "plucked from thin air,"  (3) trivialized plaintiff's impairments, raising the possibility that the judges were not seeking to be fair but rather trying to support conclusions they had already formed,  (4) used analysis that was deficient and incoherent,  (5) made decisions at odds with established precedent and that these were arbitrary, illogical, and not supported by substantial evidence,  (6) delayed in ways that were particularly egregious,  (7) subjected witnesses to combative questioning and  (8) that their overall conduct demonstrated serious negligence and possible bias.

On October 18, 2013, the court approved a settlement (details) that provided that

  1. The over 4,000 class members whose claims were denied by one of the five judges named above between January 1, 2008, and October 18, 2013 will have the right to a new hearing and decision on that claim.   The new decision will be made by a judge who was not one of the five listed above or, in certain circumstances, may be made by a Social Security Administration attorney advisor or the Social Security Administration’s Appeals Council.
  2. Class members whose claims are denied by the five judges named above during the 30- month period after October 18, 2013 will have their claims reviewed by a special group of staff at the Appeals Council.   If a class member’s claim is sent for another hearing after an appeal, the claim will be assigned to a judge who is not one of the five listed above.
  3. The Social Security Administration was required to issue a Ruling regarding procedures for addressing allegations of an unfair ALJ hearing, ALJ bias or ALJ misconduct.   That ruling was published on January 29, 2013 as Social Security Ruling, SSR 13–1p; Titles II and XVI: Agency Processes for Addressing Allegations of Unfairness, Prejudice, Partiality, Bias, Misconduct, or Discrimination by Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) (details, see page 6168, right column).   Two minor corrections have been published in the Federal Register.
  4. The Social Security Administration was required to conduct training programs designed to instruct judges on the following issues: (1) the evaluation treating source opinions; (2) assessing credibility; (3) developing the record; and (4) conducting hearings.
  5. The Social Security Administration is required to provide mentors for judges with regard to the subjects of the training.
  6. The Social Security Administration was required to send notices to class members advising them of their rights under the settlement.

In agreeing to the settlement, the Social Security Administration denied any wrongdoing or liability.

Comment: The Urban Justice Center is to be commended for its hard work in bringing this lawsuit.   Although the Social Security Administration denied any wrongdoing, the settlement certainly suggests to us that the named judges were guilty of repeated abuse of their authorized powers as judges as charged in the lawsuit.

Nationwide, claimants and their representatives commonly accuse administrative law judges informally of abusing their power?   How and why is this possible?   The principal reason is that because definition of disability requires decision makers to try to evaluate claims of pain, fatigue and various other subjective factors and there is no reliable method for doing this (details), decision makers are forced to rely on personal bias and to guess.   Thus, it is not surprising to find judges accused of bias against claimants.   The Social Security Administration's consistently poor data collection (details) and judges' freedom to allow or deny as many applicants as they like only make matters worse.   Until the fundamental problems are corrected, occurrences like this can be expected to continue.


Last updated on 3/28/14.