You may know the firm, because you can’t get through 15 minutes of daytime TV without seeing its ads. Binder is the guy in a cowboy hat grinning from ear to ear who makes this promise to viewers: “We’ll deal with the government. You have enough to worry about.”
Binder isn’t just advertising his services in those commercials; he’s selling a government program many people didn’t know existed. Now they do. And Binder’s firm is the beneficiary. It raked in $68.7 million in fees last year, the biggest player in the disability industrial complex.
That’s why he’s smiling so broadly in those ads. Other law firms are following his lead. In 2010, a $1.4 billion slice of the disability-awards pie was paid as fees to disability lawyers by the Social Security Administration, up from $425 million in 2001.
Who says there aren’t pockets of growth in our stalled economy?
The NPR report didn’t end there. Binder and his clients, it turns out, have advantages when they get before a federal appeals judge. “You might imagine a courtroom where on one side there’s the claimant and on the other side there’s a government attorney who is saying, ‘We need to protect the public interest and your client is not sufficiently deserving,’” MIT economist David Autor told NPR. “Actually, it doesn’t work like that. There is no government lawyer on the other side of the room.”
You heard that right. There is no lawyer representing the taxpayers, despite the fact that the average claim costs us over $300,000. The number is that high because in addition to the annual $13,000 people get when they win their appeals, they soon qualify for Medicare. Which means taxpayers are not only paying people not to work for the rest of their lives, we’re picking up the tab for their health care, too.
Regrettably, the Social Security Administration didn’t design disability hearings to be adversarial, according to the NPR report. Instead, judges are there to represent the government, while they are simultaneously charged with giving a fair and impartial hearing to the claimants. Judge Randy Frye, a North Carolina administrative-law judge, told NPR he often finds himself glancing to the other side of the courtroom hoping to hear a challenge from the government. But what he sees is an empty chair. From the sound of things, Frye is a judge doing his best in a bad situation.
Some judges are less scrupulous. Take Judge David Daugherty — please. Until he was forced into retirement two years ago, Daugherty processed more cases than all but three other judges in America. But he didn’t seem interested in defending taxpayers. According to the 2011 Wall Street Journal report that led the Social Security Administration to place him on leave, Daugherty decided 1,284 cases in 2010, and awarded benefits in all but four. For the first six months of 2011, he approved payments in every one of his 729 decisions. How does that compare with the other 1,500 judges administering the program? The chance of winning in their courtrooms is 60 percent.
“Some of these judges act like it’s their own damn money we’re giving away,” Daugherty told a fellow judge in Huntington, W.Va., according to the Journal.
He’s right. It isn’t the judge’s money. And it isn’t the lawyer’s money, either. It’s our money.
Regrettably, we now have a system in place that advantages one side — trial lawyers — over another — taxpayers — and provides claimants enough wiggle room to allow them to scam the system with little effort. They simply have to hire a lawyer — and wait. For people with poor job prospects and little training, it might just be enough to induce them to get on the dole for the rest of their lives.
What are the costs to taxpayers? SSDI hit a record $124 billion in benefits in 2010. And according to a CBO report in 2011, Medicare costs for SSDI recipients added up to $80 billion. And we taxpayers don’t lawyer up on these disability appeals?
So what can we do about this perfect storm of factors leading America down the path to becoming Disability Nation? Here’s an idea: Identify all the unemployed recent college graduates across the country, and have them follow around all the people collecting disability, and see how many are doing things like fishing. Or hunting. Or doing off-the-books work. And pay the graduates a bounty for each scammer they out.
In addition to making some extra money and saving taxpayers even more, those young graduates will learn just how corrosive a well-intentioned federal program can become. They’ll learn that people respond to incentives, and if you make not working pay about as much as working, and throw in lifetime medical benefits, you’ll get some bad outcomes. They’ll learn that because of those incentives — and the work of trial lawyers — many able-bodied citizens who should be working and contributing to our society are instead stealing from it.
But don’t hold your breath. Because the experience just might turn a lot of recent graduates fresh out of their liberal indoctrination camps — or as Dennis Prager likes to call them, liberal seminaries — into conservatives.
— Lee Habeeb is the vice president of content at Salem Radio Network, which syndicates Bill Bennett, Mike Gallagher, Dennis Prager, Michael Medved, and Hugh Hewitt. He lives in Oxford, Miss., with his wife, Valerie, and daughter, Reagan.