Monday, January 27, 2014

The SSA Has Wrongly Classified Some Beneficiaries as Being in Prison

Social Security disability beneficiaries suffer a great deal from the frequent mistakes and the overall incompetence of the Social Security Administration.  Almost on weekly basis, I see horrible mix ups that cause a great deal of pain and aggravation to disabled individuals.  Unfortunately these days, the media is so concerned with news reports that discredit the importance of the disability benefit programs, that they ignore the pain and suffering endured by those who fall victim to the ineptitude of the SSA.
Take the example of the terrible injustice committed against Fernando Ortiz from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., whose benefits were discontinued twice because the SSA mistakenly believed that he was in prison.  Twice Mr. Ortiz was told that his benefits were being stopped because he was supposedly serving time at the Pondville Correctional Center in Massachusetts.  However, officials from the Massachusetts prison have stated that they don't understand how this mistake could have happened because they don't have any prisoners with that name.  
This problem seems to happen quite frequently.  I recall receiving at least one call from a client in Springfield, Massachusetts regarding a similar problem.  However, in Mr. Ortiz's case, the mistake happened twice within a five month period.  In December, the SSA sent a letter to Mr. Ortiz alleging that he was in prison and that he was liable for a $6,883.60 "overpayment" of his benefits.  The bureaucratic mess dragged into January and Ortiz had to drain his small savings to pay his bills.  Moreover, his Medicare benefits were also discontinued due to the problem, causing him to have to cancel an important doctor's appointment.  
What is most ironic about this story is the fact that, just a few months ago, the enemies of Social Security Disability were claiming that beneficiaries of the program were often overpaid --implying that large numbers of beneficiaries were ripping off the system.  Obviously, these critics were not taking into consideration the fact that in many cases these alleged over payment letters are sent due to errors within the agency and not due to actual over payments received by the beneficiaries.   

Monday, January 20, 2014

The 16th Annual Conference on Litigating Disability Insurance Claims in NYC: I Will be There!

This week, I will be in attendance at the 16th Annual Conference on Litigating Disability Insurance Claims in New York City. 
This is the nation's premier conference on Litigating Disability Insurance claims which is led by an unparalleled faculty of jurists, insurance lawyers and claimant's attorneys.
Over the years,I have had the professional satisfaction of representing disability claimants who have concurrent claims for disability benefits from the Social Security Disability programs as well as from private long term disability insurance carriers such as: Cigna, Prudential, Sun Life, the Hartford, Liberty Mutual and Met Life.  There is great deal of interplay between these two types of disability claims and I find that claimants are better served when they have the same attorney representing them in both the Social Security case and the private long term disability claim.  Unfortunately, I find that many claimants are not fully aware of the strong relation between these two sources of disability benefits an fail to contact an attorney early enough to help them with their claim.  
Just last week I assumed the legal representation for a client who was led to believe by Cigna that she did not need an attorney for her LTD claim.  Moreover, she was steered to use the Social Security Disability advocate chosen by Cigna.  Unfortunately, it was not until her LTD claim was denied that she realized that she should have hired a disability lawyer early on to represent her on her Social Security Disability case as well as her LTD claim.  She did not know that probably it would not have cost her any more money to hire a lawyer earlier rather than later.  Many disability lawyers like me work on a contingency basis and, in many instances, it doesn't cost any more money to hire us early on.   

Monday, January 13, 2014

Give the SSA Sufficient Funds to Fight Fraud

I am extremely saddened by the news that a group of approximately 100 former police officers and firefighters were indicted in New York City for allegations of fraudulently seeking and obtaining SSDI benefits. I find these alleged actions to be appalling.  Any abuse of the Social Security Disability programs is perpetrated at the expense of millions of disabled beneficiaries to whom SSDI benefits is their only way to survive economically.
If fraud was indeed committed, these individuals should be brought to justice.  However, these unfortunate cases of fraud should not be used as a reason to limit disability benefits to those who truly need them.  The National Organization of Social Security Claimant's Representatives (NOSSCR), an organization of which I am a sustaining member, has issued a statement regarding these arrests in New York, which states in part: "We cannot allow the bad behavior of a relative few to jeopardize the crucial benefits of millions of Americans with significant disabilities and severe illnesses who depend on these programs.
The Social Security Administration works to prevent fraud.  However, the agency needs funds to put up a good fight against corruption in the system.  In the past years, the agency has been deprived of the administrative resources it requires to conduct necessary program integrity.  Congress must appropriate funds to give the SSA adequate resources to ensure that the right persons receive benefits --with correct amounts and at the right time.   

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Role of the Vocational Expert in Your Social Security Disability Hearing

If you have received a notice of an upcoming Social Security Disability hearing, you are probably wondering why the notice letter states that the judge has requested a vocational expert to be present.  Understanding what role this vocational expert will play, helps alleviate some of the stress and nervousness felt by claimants on the day of the hearing.
A vocational expert or "VE" is called to testify in practically all Social Security Disability hearings.  The role of this expert is to assist the judge in determining whether there are any jobs available that a claimant can perform given his or her limitations, age, education and skills.  It is important to be aware that the vocational expert never asks any questions directly to the claimant.  The lawyer and the judge will be the only persons asking direct questions from the claimant. 
The Vocational Expert testifies once the claimant has completed his or her testimony.  In some cases, the judge does not ask any questions of the VE.  This is usually  a good sign and it probably means that the evidence presented by the claimant was so strong that there is no doubt in the judge's mind that there are no jobs that the claimant can perform.  
The judge usually begins his questioning of the Vocational Expert by asking him or her to define the nature of the job or jobs that the claimant held in the 15 year period prior to the alleged onset date of disability.  The VE's testimony is supposed to be based on a very large publication called the "Dictionary of Occupational Titles" , also called the "DOT".  This publication contains lists of occupations with job descriptions.  Each one of these jobs is given a title and a number.  When the VE testifies, you should expect him to recite job titles followed by long 9 digit numbers.  This part of the hearing is perhaps the most complicated.  Don't be alarmed if you have a hard time following the VE's testimony.  This is one of the reasons why it is a good idea to hire Social Security Disability Lawyer who can represent you at the hearing and help you deal with highly technical testimony of the VE.  
Once the VE describes the kind of work that you did in the past 15 years, the judge will ask him or her a series of hypothetical questions.  These hypothetical questions will ask the VE to assume that the claimant has certain limitations and then ask him or her to state whether there are any jobs that the claimant can perform given these limitations.  If the VE provides convincing answers that there are jobs available in the economy that the claimant can perform, the case will be denied.  If the VE testifies that there are no jobs that the claimant can perform, the case will in all likelihood be granted. 
One he of the most important roles of a Social Security Disability lawyer is to be able to ask questions ("cross examine") of the VE in a way that would lead the judge to make a finding that there are no jobs available that the claimant can perform.  If the lawyer is successful in this stage of the case, there is a high probability that his client's case will be won.