Monday, October 26, 2015

Jessica Smith From RamosLaw Will Attend the Fall 2015 NOSSCR Conference

Social Security claimants' representatives and attorneys from all over the Nation meet twice a year to share their knowledge with one another and learn the best practices in the field.  This event is a four day conference hosted by NOSSCR (the National Organization of Social Security Claimant's Representatives).  
This week, our very own Jessica Smith will be flying out to Denver, Colorado, "the Mile-High City", to further develop her skills in the ever changing world of Social Security Disability law.  Many of you who have used the services of RamosLaw know how well informed Jessica is and how eager she is to share this knowledge with all of our clients.  Her trip to Denver is a wonderful opportunity to continue sharpening her skills.  Note that, the event is an intense seminar: there's no time for golfing or playing shuffleboard.  Work hard Jess, our client's need you more than ever!
NOSSCR has been a pioneer in teaching advocacy skills to lawyers and legal professionals who work on behalf of the disabled.  Its first conference was held in 1979 in New Orleans with about 100 participants. Today, NOSSCR has grown strong and it counts with more than 4,000 members, many who are actively lobbying in Congress to protect our disability programs. 
This tine around the keynote speaker, on the Thursday morning general session, will be Theresa Gruber, incoming Deputy Commissioner, ODAR.   
We are all excited for Jess and wish her a great trip!

Monday, October 19, 2015

No COLA Next Year for Social Security Recepients

The cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA usually provided to Social Security Disability beneficiaries on an annual basis will not be available next year.  Retirees and Disabled Veterans will not receive an increase in benefits either.    This is bad news in light of higher medicare costs.  
In 1975 Congress passed legislation providing for an annual increase in benefits to account for increases in inflation.  However, the formula used to determine inflation uses a consumer price index which relies heavily on gas prices.  Since gas prices have been dropping, figures used to determine the COLA led the government to conclude that there hasn't been any significant inflation that would justify an increase in benefits.  
It is widely accepted that the drop in gas and heating oil prices were the main reason why there will be no COLA in 2016. However, the cost of other items and services that disabled individuals spend a great deal of money on  --such as health care-- went up last year.  Therefore, Social Security Disability beneficiaries will take a big hit as a result of not receiving the yearly boost in benefits.  It is estimated that the prices for medical care increased by 2.4 percent last year.  The prices for other items that disabled beneficiaries need have also gone up.   For example, the price of housing went up by 3.2 and food prices climbed by 1.6 percent.
Advocates for the disabled and the elderly have argued for years that the formula used by the government to determine inflation does not accurately reflect the cost of good and services consumed by this sector of the population.  Instead, advocates favor another price index called the CPI-E (E for elderly), which takes into consideration the specific spending patters of those who are elderly. Congressman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) is proposing legislation that would amend the law and require the use of the consumer price index for the elderly instead of the consumer price index being used now.

Monday, October 12, 2015

6th Circuit: Deadline to File For LTD Benefits Does Not Apply When Disability Prevents Claimant from Making Claim

I often get calls from claimants who have failed to make timely claims for long term disability benefits.  A recurrent theme in some of these phone inquiries is that the claimant failed to apply for LTD benefits because their overall mental and/or physical health hindered their ability to advocate on their own behalf.  In many cases, the callers tell me that they were fired by their employers before they could file for disability.
Fortunately, just a few days ago the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decided a case on point.  In Waskiewicz v. UniCare Life and Health Ins. Co., the Court of Appeals heard the case of Laura Waskiewicz, a Ford Motor Company employee who was absent from her job due to a "debilitating emotional breakdown".  Ms. Waskiewicz did not inform Ford of her absence and was fired from her job.  Since she was no longer an active employee at Ford, her application for LTD benefits under the company's plan was not accepted.  However, Ms. Waskiewicz's doctor had written a letter stating that his patient's inability to work was due to her medical condition and that her disability had begun on the day of her first absence from work.   
Ms. Waskiewicz contested the denial of her long term disability benefits in Federal District Court. After loosing at the District Court level, the case was heard by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals which decided, in an unanimous decisions, that her failure to file for LTD benefits was excusable because she was unable to comply with the plan's deadline "due to the very disability for which she sought coverage".   Appellate  Judge Alan E. Norris writing for the three judge panel stated: 

“An insurance policy can hardly be said to provide employee disability ‘insurance’ at all if it protects against sudden disability but not if the employer immediately discharges the employee because of the disability before she gets a chance to apply for the benefits,” Judge Norris said. “Common sense convinces us that the denial of benefits in this case runs contrary to the spirit of ERISA, which is designed to protect employee benefits, not subject them to arbitrary termination — in this case retroactive termination — after the benefit has otherwise accrued.”

This case is undoubtedly a legal victory for disabled claimants.  However, it must be pointed out that a successful outcome in a case such as Waskiewicz  depends greatly in the ability of the claimant and his or her lawyer to obtain medical opinions corroborating that their patient was unable to file the claim on a timely basis due to a disabling physical or mental condition.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Is the SSA Respecting the Integrity of Administrative Law Judges?

Recent developments at the Social Security Administration (SSA) have raised concerns whether
the agency is respecting the integrity and independence of Administrative Law Judges (ALJ's).  For example, in 2014 the SSA asked ALJ Rita Eppler to make a presentation during a training for its employees.  Other ALJ's were supportive of her remarks, particularly when she emphasized the importance of having a totally independent trier of fact making unbiased determinations in disability cases.
Apparently, the SSA management didn't like her remarks and has kept her speech out of future training sessions.  Here is a video of Judge's Eppler's remarks.  You can judge for yourself whether there was anything inappropriate in what she said.
The SSA's actions in this matter are very troubling given the fact that in the past year many ALJ's seem to have decreased dramatically the number of  fully favorable decisions being issued.
The integrity of our disability claims process depends greatly in maintaining and protecting the independence of the ALJ's.  It is the responsibility of every Social Security Disability Lawyer to defend the right of the disabled to appear before unbiased judges.  We must stand united and protest any attempts to infringe on the independence of the ALJ's.