Monday, February 27, 2017

Social Security Disability Judge Refuses to Watch LGBT Video and Sues the Agency

Social Security Disability Judge Gary Suttles from Texas has refused to watch an LGBT diversity training video as was mandated by the terms of his employment.  To avoid getting disciplined or fired, he has filed a lawsuit claiming a "religiously hostile work environment".  

The order to all Social Security Judges to watch the video is an effort by the Social Security Administration to create "better awareness in a diverse and inclusive environment".

On a statement to the hearing office director, Judge Suttles stated that he would not watch the video and said: "I am already fully aware to treat all persons with respect and dignity and have done so my entire life".  I strongly disagree with the Judge.  Judge Suttles is part of a group of "serial denier judges" within the systems whose practices have been unchecked by the agency for many years. Suttles approves the benefits of only 15% percent of the claimants who appear before him.  Over the past three to four years the agency has fostered a culture that favors judges with low approval rates. Very little has been done to review judges, such as Suttles, who have extremely low approval rates.  

In his complaint, Judge Suttles alleges that he has had a "sterling work record" in his career as an administrative law judge.  However, he fails to mention that he was investigated after he unfairly treated a Gulf War veteran who appeared before him in a disability hearing.  The veteran alleged disability as a result of war related PTSD.  According the the Washington Post and the Austin American-Statesman, the 44-year old veteran had served as a fueler on an aircraft carrier. Judge Suttles mocked the veteran's claim by stating:
"I mean, hey you were in the Navy.  You weren't fighting on the ground...  To me it would have been exiting.  What do you mean stressful?"
Even though veterans' groups condemned Judge Suttles remarks, the Social Security Administration refused to suspend or remove him from his job.  Hopefully, any Social Security Disability Lawyer with an LGBT client who appears before Judge Suttles will demand that he recuse himself from the case. 

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Meaning of "SVP" In Your Social Security Disability Hearing

The Social Security Disability claims process is full of abbreviations and acronyms.  If you have had a Social Security Disability hearing, you probably have heard the term "SVP" used by your lawyer, the judge or, the vocational expert.  

SVP stands for Specific Vocational Preparation.  SVP refers to the amount of time that it takes a person to learn a specific job.  As a Social Security Disability Lawyer, it is my duty to prove to Social Security that there are no occupations that my clients can perform.  My arguments vary greatly depending on my clients' skills and their ability to transfer them to other occupations.  

According to the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, each occupation in the National economy has a corresponding SVP level.  These SVP levels range from 1 to 9.  Here are the nine SVP levels and the corresponding explanations regarding how long it takes to learn the skills of at each level:

SVP 1 Short demonstration only
SVP 2 Anything beyond short demonstration up to and including 1 month
SVP 3 Over 1 month up to and including 3 months
SVP 4 Over 3 months up to and including 6 months
SVP 5 Over 6 months up to and including 1 year
SVP 6 Over 1 year up to and including 2 years
SVP 7 Over 2 years up to and including 4 years
SVP 8 Over 4 years up to and including 10 years
SVP 9 Over 10 years

Here is a short fact pattern that illustrates how SVP numbers are used during a Social Security Disability hearing:

Miroslav  was "tailor" who alleged disability, in part, due to an injury in one hand.  Miroslav knows some English but has difficulty engaging in a full conversation.  At the hearing, the vocational expert (VE) states that the occupation of tailor has an SVP of 7. The VE also states that a tailor must be able to constantly use both hands.  Miroslav's lawyer cross-examines the VE.  He asks whether a person can be a tailor if he or she is limited to less than constant use of both hands. The VE states that he or she cannot. Consequently, the job of tailor is ruled out and it is determined that Miroslav can no longer do his old job.

Miroslav's lawyer must then show that there are no other jobs that his client can perform.  The judge interrupts and asks the VE to identify other jobs with the same SVP level as the job of a tailor. The VE comes up with other jobs such as "store manager", which also has an SVP of 7. On cross examination, Miroslav's lawyer correctly points out that a store manager requires good command of the English language. He also points out that even though the occupation of tailor is highly skilled, it does not have skills that can easily be transferred to other jobs at the SVP 7 level. The Judge then realizes that Miroslav's lawyer is a competent SSD lawyer and agrees to change his question to the VE. Based Miroslav's the lack of transferable skills and his difficulty speaking English, the judge then asks the VE to identify jobs that have an SVP level of 1 or 2, only.  Since jobs with SVP levels of 1 and 2 usually require good use of both hands, Miroslav's lawyer is now in a better position to rule them out.  (Miroslav's hand limitation would have made much less of a difference if the judge had considered jobs at the SVP 3 to 7 levels.)