The disability benefit cases of an estimated 4,000 people will be reviewed for possible legal and factual errors by administrative law judges for the Social Security Administration in Queens under a federal court agreement.
Advocates for the disabled say the proposed settlement provides a means to redress what they contend has been years of faulty decision-making and abusive behavior toward clients and their attorneys by five of the eight ALJ's hearing cases in Queens.
The Social Security Administration "took the allegations quite seriously and we are grateful that they embraced reform rather than dig in their heels," said Jim Walden, who helped represent the plaintiffs for Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. "Instead of simply litigating for years, they agreed to a combination of forms of relief that are intended to solve the problem. And if it doesn't, this gives them the tools that they need to get rid of these ALJs once and for all."
While Gibson Dunn's involvement was pro bono, the settlement agreement provides for the payment of $125,000 in legal fees to the Urban Justice Center, which is also representing the claimants.
The Social Security Administration did not admit wrongdoing. Neither its regional director nor the Department of Justice, which defended the agency, had any comment.
The settlement in Padro v. Astrue, 11-cv-1788, was sent to Eastern District Magistrate Judge Roanne Mann (See Profile) on Jan. 11 for review. Judge Carol Bagley Amon (See Profile) will make the final decision on whether to approve or reject it.
The action claims that 10 named plaintiffs and others similarly situated were wrongfully denied Social Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability (SSD) benefits in matters heard beginning in 2005 by the Social Security Administration's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review in Queens.
The suit contends that while 72 percent of disability claims were granted by administrative law judges nationwide from 2005 to 2008, four of the Queens ALJs named in the suit granted 31 percent to 45 percent of the claims. The other ALJ approved 61 percent of the petitions before her (NYLJ, Sept. 6, 2011).
According to the plaintiffs, the ALJs sometimes ignored established law, disregarded the testimony of medical experts and "bullied" clients and their attorneys.
The suit identified the ALJs as Michael Cofresi, Seymour Fier, Marilyn Hoppenfeld, David Nisnewitz and Hazel Strauss. By law, ALJs employed by federal agencies must be attorneys.