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Can an Administrative Law Judge Make an Error?
It’s easy to see why a representative would be necessary when applying for disability. In the early stages, the state disability agencies seem to be gunning to deny as many cases as possible. It feels like a race to the bottom, where in all outcomes you’ll be in last place. Your doctors have provided all of their records, you attended all of the consultations you needed to, and your doctors even put together thorough narrative reports describing the range of your disabilities and just how debilitating they truly are. And yet, after a year or more of waiting, you receive denials. As representatives, we know this is part of the fight and will stick by your side. We won’t be discouraged when the Administration does what we know it will.
But then, you have a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge. The statistics are clear on this – cases are won when an ALJ is the one making a decision. The Social Security Administration’s 2021 Annual Statistical Report states that, in 2020, only 36.1% of cases were won at the initial adjudicative level, 11.1% of cases were won at the reconsideration level, and 57.6% of cases were won at the hearing level or above; this is a huge increase in the percentage of cases granted. Even this number can be misleading, as a small handful of judges deny at disproportionately high rates (though they still grant at a higher rate than at the reconsideration level). You’re not likely to encounter one of these ALJs, but should that happen, rest assured that we are well-prepared to handle such situations. So, what’s the course of action when an otherwise competent judge makes an error?
All Judges Make Mistakes
A situation like this happened to me recently. Mr. Feeny (not his real name, of course; we value your privacy too much to let your personal details out) had already been tossed around by the Administration for quite some time before he came to our office for assistance. There are a handful of hearing offices across the country that have reputations as being incredibly challenging, even towards sympathetic claimants with very clear cases. Regrettably, Mr. Feeny was stuck in one of those areas. Other than moving to a completely different city, there’s really not much to be done to be reassigned to a new hearing office. After being twice unfairly denied, there seemed to be a light at the end of the tunnel for Mr. Feeny – he was reassigned to a different judge who had a great reputation as being fair and impartial. But even fair judges make mistakes. In a hearing office like this, however, mistakes can be brutal.
This judge, after some technical challenges during the hearing, eventually managed to state on the record that Mr. Feeny is unequivocally disabled. You can imagine our surprise, then, when a judge with her reputation, who stated plainly that Mr. Feeny would be receiving disability benefits, turned around and dismissed the claim. This wasn’t just a denial of benefits; the ALJ claimed that Mr. Feeny’s hearing never happened at all. It had me questioning my own grip on reality! There are notes from the hearing and internal logs, but still the Administration insisted that the hearing never happened.
This case, of course, could go through the normal appeal process; it exists, after all, to handle these types of situations. However, the case could be reassigned after an appeal, but that was not something we could allow. Mr. Feeny had his fair hearing and the ALJ had made it clear what she intended to do; clerical errors shouldn’t get in the way of that. With a great deal of effort, we learned that someone at the Administration had accidentally deleted the recording from the hearing. With no formal log, the ALJ’s staff assumed the hearing never happened and marked it as such. The timeline for an ALJ to revise a decision is narrow, but not unmeetable. We, thankfully, were able to reach out to the ALJ, get her to revise the decision, and finally end Mr. Feeny’s decade-long fight with the Administration.
With all of that said, what could it mean for you as you apply for benefits? If you take anything away from my story, please consider the following points:
- It helps to know your judge and your hearing office. We were able to connect with the ALJ quickly despite the hurdles that hearing office often puts in place to keep claimants away. Because of this, Mr. Feeny’s denial was able to be revised to an award of benefits rather than subjected to the entire appeal process and potential reassignment.
- All judges make mistakes. At the end of the day, these judges are human beings and are prone to error just as much as any other person. Although we can usually rely on the good judges not to make such egregious errors, it does happen from time to time. Being prepared for this and having the ability to respond with lightning speed to have these errors corrected before they become binding. Thankfully, many judges are also responsive to these attempts to correct!
- Know that acquiring a competent representative will almost always give you the best chance at success. If Mr. Feeny wasn’t represented at the hearing or if he was represented by some disability mill that farms out their services to local contractors, his story may not have had the same happy ending. Because we take diligent care of every one of our cases and see them through from start to finish, we knew exactly what needed to be done for his case to go the way it was supposed to. If he was on his own, he may not have known how to contact the hearing office or the judge’s staff; if he was with a mill, he very easily could have slipped between the cracks.
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If you have any questions at all about disability regardless of where you are in the process, always know you can reach out to us for assistance. Our services are free until you win, so there’s no reason not to contact us. We will fight for you from filing to fully favorable and will make sure that you see the benefits you’re owed.Free SSD Evaluation