Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

NYC Lawsuit Tackles Bias in Disability Appeals

Mezey.RAGLEPHOTO_0154_11780Drake HagnerA small group of individuals with disabilities in Queens, New York fought back against judicial bias in the Social Security disability appeals process – and won. A recent article, published by the Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, tells their story and highlights the important systemic reforms they achieved.

The plaintiffs alleged that they had all experienced bias or discrimination by Administrative Law Judges at their Social Security hearing office located in Queens, New York. The judges’ impermissible conduct led to unfair hearings and wrongful denials of their disability claims. Indeed, prior to the class action, this hearing office had the third lowest disability claim-approval rates in the nation.

Lawyers at the Urban Justice League – an innovative legal advocacy group in New York City –represented the plaintiffs with pro bono co-counsel Gibson Dunn & Crutcher. The complaint, Padro v. Colvin, was filed in 2011. In 2013, the case settled. Settlement required Social Security to allow new hearings for thousands of individuals as well as engage in ongoing monitoring in future cases.

Settlement also spurred the Social Security Administration to release a long-awaited policy to address allegations of prejudice, bias, or discrimination by Administrative Law Judges. This important policy clarifies how complaints are processed and describes how the public may file complaints.

While the alleged misconduct in Padro v. Colvin was extreme, this case sheds a light on the cumbersome disability review process, which is challenging to navigate even without judicial bias.

As the article states, despite public misconceptions to the contrary, disability “award rates are the lowest in history and have fallen during the recession.” It is difficult for many low-income residents to obtain the regular, specialized medical treatment sufficient to document their disabilities, as required by Social Security rules.

However, even cases with sufficient evidence are routinely denied at the initial application stages. In these cases, disability applicants face extremely long wait times after applying for benefits. Most Legal Aid clients wait more than a year to appear before an Administrative Law Judge to appeal a denial of benefits. For example, Legal Aid represented the following individuals:

• A mother of four who, suffering PTSD and depression as a result of years of abuse, waited four years from the date of her application before Social Security approved her benefits.

• A man in his 50’s with severe depression who went through multiple hearings and appeals over the course of five years to get his benefits.

• A woman suffering from depression and severe kidney disease who had to go through multiple hearings and an eventual appeal to federal district court in order to get her benefits.

Like Administrative Law Judge bias, these entrenched problems do not have obvious solutions. Progress is slow and requires collaboration and innovative advocacy strategies. Currently, in addition to our individual representation, Legal Aid is collaborating with local and national advocacy groups to address the problem. We meet regularly with local Social Security Administration leadership to advocate for a fair and efficient application process. Our clients with disabilities deserve no less.

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