Social Security attorney Gordon Gates wrote about a Social Security Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) who only approves 11 percent of cases.
In trying to find insight in to how this ALJ could only approve 11% of cases when most other judges approve somewhere between 45-60% of cases, Gordon found the following post from the ALJ on a high profile public website:
Some doctors go overboard on diagnoses and treatment because they sense the “pot of gold” in having a fairly young patient on Medicare for many years to come with a reliable source of payment for constant treatment.
Lawyers and other non-attorney representative can receive fees as a percentage of the back benefits awarded to a claimant. Once a claimant has a legal representative, one can actually track how the alleged impairments become much worse, with new impairments and symptoms added as the case matures.
A judge with some experience can almost recite verbatim the same story we hear from virtually EVERY claimant, suggesting they have received training from the national organization of the claimants’ attorneys. The government is complicit in this boondoggle, because the Social Security Administration actually publishes lists of symptoms for various impairments in the form of rules for judges to follow. Is it any wonder we hear those lists of symptoms at almost every hearing?
The Judge’s quote is quite lengthy and covers a number of topics. I encourage you to read it in Gordon’s article: The 11 Percent ALJ.
While I can agree with the Judge on several points in the longer quote, I strongly disagree with what the Judge says above.
Let’s set ’em up and knock ’em down!
Medicare as a “Pot of Gold”
The ALJ states that doctors are likely to “go overboard” with medical opinions to get patients approved for Social Security so the doctor has a “reliable stream of income” for years to come.
In my experience, doctors generally do not want to provide any medical opinions and the hardest part of being an advocate for the disabled is trying to get doctors to make opinions in Social Security disability cases.
Of course, the attorney’s and client’s attempts to get these medical opinions happens before the hearing and is typically invisible to the ALJ.
Additionally, there are two kinds of health insurance which come with Social Security:
- Medicare – if you are approved for Disability Insurance (Title 2 – SSDI).
- Medicaid – if you are approved for Supplemental Security Income (Title 16 – SSI).
Many clients tell me that they cannot find a doctor to take them on if they are on Medicaid. The doctor’s office is either no longer taking Medicaid patients or they have taken all the Medicaid patients they can for the year.
Doctors often do not want to take Medicaid patients because they make less money on those patients. Medicaid is not any kind of “windfall” for doctors.
So, I wonder if the ALJ also believes that doctors are also likely to exaggerate opinions in SSI cases where the person will only get Medicaid?
Attorneys receive a percentage of the claimant’s back benefits
Yes, attorneys do not work for free. Neither does the Judge, the Judge’s clerk, or his staff. We all have to pay rent, buy groceries, and pay our utilities.
But, don’t disability attorneys have a vested interest in finding everyone disabled.
Do firefighters have a vested interest in burning buildings? Do cops have a vested interest in crime?
Disability attorney have a vested interest to the extent that we only get paid if our client wins. But, you could also say attorneys who take Social Security disability cases feel strongly enough about the disabled that we risk not getting paid for our work if we don’t win.
Attorneys “train” their clients
No. We prepare our clients for the day that may change their lives forever.
That’s just semantics!
I don’t think so. I do not tell my clients what to say. But, I go over common hearing questions and their answers. Why?
- Time is short. Judges often schedule only 30 to 45 minutes for each hearing. That includes the Judge’s comments, swearing in, Medical Expert testimony (in some cases), and Vocational Expert testimony. There isn’t time to get warmed up. Applicants have to hit the ground running with the most important parts of their case front and center!
- You need to focus on what’s important. People have a natural tendency to drift off into other topics. With the limited time, I want to make sure my client does not miss a critical part of the case because we ran out of time.
- You need to address inconsistencies ahead of the hearing. A client may say something which appears inconsistent with their disability. Often there is an explanation. However, unless you work through the inconsistency before the hearing, the client may be too nervous at the hearing to provide an adequate explanation.
Actually, it is pretty easy to tell when someone is just repeating something they were told to say. Most people are terrible liars, especially when faced with the stress of their Social Security hearing.
Ultimately, the “coaching question” comes down to this: good lawyers do not hide the problems in a case, they overcome them.
Impairments and symptoms become worse as the case matures
Well, of course they do!
When you work with a good attorney, he or she helps you obtain evidence that Social Security was not able to get or was unaware of. I have seen bi-polar cases where none of the psychiatric records were obtained until the lawyer got involved. I have seen the same for back injury cases where there are no records in the file until the client hires a lawyer to help build the case.
As more evidence is obtained, cases become better developed which means there is more relevant documentation of the impairments and symptoms. So, of course, impairments and symptoms “get worse.”
However, the ALJ seems to suggest that the actual condition(s) worsen AFTER the attorney is hired. This implies that lawyers somehow add-on symptoms and impairments that do not exist to make their clients look worse than they actually are in order to improve the chances of winning the case.
Allow me to present an alternative explanation: people get worse over time. All things being equal, the aging process makes it likely that if you have a chronic medical condition, you will feel worse as you get older.
Do you expect someone with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), or diabetes, or a back problem to feel better at age 50 than they felt at age 45? No, of course not!
I see this all the time. A person is diagnosed with a condition, let’s say carpal tunnel syndrome. They begin to see a doctor, get some treatment, possibly even surgery, and they keep on working. Two years pass, then another two, and the condition isn’t getting any better. Sometimes the person will change jobs to one that doesn’t require quite so much use of their hands. Often though, they will reach a point where they are simply no longer able to work. It is sad to say, but it is a common disease process!
What’s another thing that also happens over time? People hire attorneys to help them build their cases. People start with no attorney and then (typically after a denial) they hire an attorney. So, there is going to be a correlation between worsening as a person ages and getting an attorney. Is it causation though? No.
Here’s another explanation: attorneys advocate for their clients to get the care they need. Here is how this works: a benefit of regularly meeting with my clients is that they tell me how they are feeling. Often the conversations go like this:
You just told be about your migraines. Have you talked to your doctor? Why not bring it up at the next visit.
I am sorry to hear the physical therapy isn’t helping. Maybe your doctor can send you to a specialist for a consultation?
Good Social Security disability attorneys help their clients get their conditions evaluated and documented.
Another thing to remember is that doctors are very good at telling when someone is exaggerating symptoms, let alone, faking symptoms outright. They have seen it in their residency and they see in their practice as patients either try to get narcotics or complain about symptoms for a variety of reasons. This is why doctors use various tests to check for correlations or inconsistent findings. If the doctor has any concerns, it often shows up in the medical records which may mention any exaggeration, malingering, “drug seeking behavior,” or “secondary gain issues.”
So, I have a hard believing that doctors regularly “have the wool pulled over their eyes.”
Symptoms described at hearing parallel those in the government published “list of symptoms.”
The Judge is referring to the Social Security Listing of Impairments (a.k.a. The Blue Book). The Listings describe conditions which Social Security views as “disabling” and the medical findings necessary to find a person disabled for those conditions.
The Listings are literally a short-cut in the disability evaluation process. If you have a condition described in the Listings and the medical evidence supports the severity required to be approved, you can be found disabled for “meeting a listing.”
The judge asks, “Is it any wonder we hear those lists of symptoms at almost every hearing?”
Let’s remember that the Listings are Social Security’s own attempt to create uniformity in how its technicians and Judges evaluate medical conditions. The idea is that different people within Social Security should not have different standards on whether a condition, for example whether diabetes is disabling or not.
Is it fair to complain that people actually use the regulations Social Security has put in place for the evaluation of claims?
The Listings are not a free pass to disability. It is not enough to have a condition described in the listing, you also have to have medical documentation (not just your say-so) that the condition meets certain medical requirements. For example, here is the listing for chronic pulmonary insufficiency which may be used for COPD. Not only do you need to have a breathing test performed but your results must be within a particular range based on your height.
I have had numerous clients with COPD and other respiratory conditions. Very few have met the Listing.
However, when I have a case that does meet a Listing, of course I will structure the presentation of the case around it: Social Security’s own guidelines says that the condition with those particular findings is disabling. Should I avoid Social Security’s own shortcut? That would be crazy!
Are we all liars?
The sum of the Judge’s quote suggests that doctors lie, lawyers lie and claimants are trained to lie.
So, who is left? Ah yes, the Social Security technicians and Social Security doctors who denied the case in the first place.
Should anyone be surprised that this judge only approves 11% of cases?
I have no problem that Judges should approach disability cases with skepticism since they are the holders of the public purse strings. However, this goes beyond healthy skepticism and into cynicism.
Is this the right approach for reviewing Social Security disability claims? What is your opinion? Add a comment to let us know.