Monday, May 9, 2016

The 7th Circuit is Fired Up Over Abuses by the SSA

Over the past few years the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has been issuing sternly worded opinions which are highly critical of the way that the SSA has been handling the disability claims process.  In this era of high denial rates, the opinions of this appellate court, particularly those from Justice Richard Posner, are a sign of hope.  It is not clear yet what immediate impact these opinions are having on the agency but sooner or later things are going to have to change.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these decisions is the tone used by the 7th Circuit judges. It is evident that the Court of Appeals is loosing its patience with the Social Security Administration and with the tactics used by many of the ALJ's assigned to hear disability cases. Judge Posner's disdain with the agency is evidenced by the fact that in some decisions he has begun to raise issues on his own without being asked to do so by plaintiff's counsel.  In addition, he has frequently warned the SSA of its repeated use of inadequate vocational expert testimony.  He seems to be so frustrated with the SSA that, at times, his tone has become sarcastic. For example, when a vocational expert testified that there are 1000 sedentary unskilled production worker jobs, 1000 sedentary unskilled information clerk jobs and 2000 sedentary cashier jobs in Wisconsin, Judge Posner said that these numbers "sounded like guesses".  He noted that 1000, 1000 and 2000 were "suspiciously round numbers".  In another case, when an ALJ found that a claimant could perform the supposed occupation of "addresser", Judge Posner question the existence of such a job.  Addresser was identified as a job where someone by hand or by typewriter addresses envelopes and cards. Judge Posner noted: "It's had to believe that, as the vocational expert testified in this case, there are 200,000 people in the United States for who this is a full-time job"... And does anyone use a typewriter anymore?"
In addition to frequently criticizing the SSA for inadequate use of vocational testimony, Judge Posner has also criticized the agency for giving too much weight to a claimant's ability to do home chores such as shopping or taking care of their children.  The 7th Circuit has repeatedly stated that equating house chores with employment tasks is a great misunderstanding because an employee cannot take breaks or ask friends and family for assistance at work.  The 7th Circuit has also been critical of ALJ decisions that find that a claimant is not disabled because he or she has not received constant medical care. The 7th Circuit has correctly explained that claimants usually don't have the money to afford medical services and that denying disability benefits for failure to obtain medical care is not always appropriate.  
Evidently its going to take a while before the SSA gets the message from the 7th Circuit.  As Social Security Disability denials continue to soar, I predict that the number of remands issued by the federal courts is also going to go up.  It is estimated that there were approximately 30,000 Social Security Disability cases remanded last year by the Federal Courts and the Appeals Council.  Eventually, other federal courts will join the 7th Circuit and become critical also of the way that the SSA is massively denying benefits to thousands of disabled Americans.  Its only a matter of time before other judges in the federal court system get fed up with avalanche of unfair disability denials that have begun to clog up their dockets.