Politics & Policy

SSA Scandal

Outrageous judges rubber-stamp disability benefits to the undeserving.

Disability judge Harry Taylor has long been accused of misconduct. The allegations have included repeatedly sexually harassing female colleagues and employees, frequently dozing off and audibly snoring during hearings, and making an inappropriate call to a legal expert representing clients. But even as he avoided significant reprimand, he continued to award disability benefits to thousands of claimants, often without even holding a hearing, at a taxpayer cost of around $2.5 billion. The kicker: Though the Social Security Administration knew of Taylor’s shortcomings, it allows him — to this day — to continue judging its disability cases.

That’s just one shocking finding among dozens in a report aptly titled “Systemic Waste and Abuse at the Social Security Administration,” released this week by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. It finds that 191 of the SSA’s judges rubber-stamped cases, awarding disability benefits in more than 85 percent of the cases they decided, including to claimants who almost certainly weren’t entitled to them.

In addition to crunching these appalling numbers, the report pays much attention to three judges, including Taylor, whose abuses of the system were particularly outrageous.

Charles Bridges, who served as the chief administrative-law judge in the SSA’s Harrisburg, Pa., hearing office between 2004 and 2010, was so notorious for prodigally awarding benefits that one disability law firm enacted a so-called Bridges Policy: to accept “any individual as a client if their case was assigned to [Bridges], regardless of the evidence.” Between 2005 and 2013, Bridges singlehandedly awarded an estimated $4.5 billion in benefits.

The report also heavily features David Daugherty, a disability judge who awarded benefits in all but roughly 1 percent of the cases he heard. Previous reports, including ones from the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, the Wall Street Journal, and National Review, have detailed how Daugherty worked with a greedy disability attorney who was shamelessly gaming the system.

All three judges are deserving of opprobrium. Instead, as the report notes, they kept their jobs and were even periodically rewarded for their bad behavior. That’s because the SSA has adopted a warped set of benchmarks for just what counts as good performance from a disability judge.

Right now, an astronomical 937,600 disability cases are awaiting the desk of a judge, and wait times are running over 400 days. To address this lengthy backlog, the SSA has encouraged judges who took on high caseloads. But while the SSA’s rush to reduce wait times resulted in improvements in its judicial performance — at least on paper — it also resulted in unintended consequences that have been financially catastrophic, for the truly disabled and taxpayers alike.

Take it from current and former judges whose expert opinions are included in the House committee’s report. One spoke of how the SSA’s obsession with reducing the backlog has “prioritized the speed of processing cases over accuracy.” The result, he continues, is that “instead of only awarding benefits to adults who are unable to work, [the system] is granting benefits to those who can work — effectively giving money away for nothing.” Another judge bemoaned how, “for SSA management, ‘making goal’ [in reducing the backlog] is more important than the adjudicatory process, the quality of a judge’s work, and any considerations in making that decision.”

The shortcomings of Taylor, Bridges, and Daugherty were long overlooked, the report suggests, because they engaged in a practice that Florida disability judge Larry Butler once memorably dubbed “paying down the backlog.” Meticulously reviewing disability cases takes time and effort, but rubber-stamping approval regardless of the merits of a claimant’s case is easy. Fork over the disability cash, cross the claimant’s name off the waiting list, and bask in the approval of SSA’s top brass.

Of course, such practices benefit only bureaucratic number-jugglers, lazy judges, undeserving disability claimants, and the greedy attorneys who are seeking a hefty cut of that first big benefits check. Meanwhile, taxpayers are milked, and the disability system becomes more fiscally fragile, a development that will inevitably hurt those who truly merit benefits.

A successful claimant can expect to draw around $300,000 over his or her lifetime, which adds up fast. The judges identified as rubber-stampers in the report have awarded approximately $153 billion in lifetime benefits between 2005 and 2013 alone.

A 2013 Senate report estimated that one-fourth of disability benefits were improperly awarded. With that in mind, it’s little wonder that today, more than six in 100 American “workers” are on Social Security disability, whereas 25 years ago, fewer than three were.

But as beneficiaries who could provide for themselves choose instead, and are permitted, to drain off the system, they’re contributing to the financial ruin of the SSA’s disability program. The fund’s trustees are saying that by 2016, it will run out of money to pay all the existing disability claims.

Marilyn Zahm, vice president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges, recently observed that “if the American public knew what was going on in our [SSA disability] system, half would be outraged, and the other half would apply for benefits.” The latter is happening. The former hasn’t yet. This noteworthy report could help fix both those problems.

— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.

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