Under the settlement agreement, the Social Security Administration will grant a new hearing to all applicants who received unfavorable decisions from the five ALJs from Jan. 1, 2008, until the present. "Unfavorable" for purposes of the settlement means applicants were denied SSI or SSD benefits, or received awards at lower levels than they sought.
While no final list of eligible applicants has been provided by the Social Security Administration (SSA), Walden said the agency believes the number is about 4,000 based on claims typically rejected by the Queens office.
SSA staff will review decisions for, among other things, whether ALJs properly considered evaluations by medical professionals, properly developed the record of each case and adequately assessed the credibility of the witnesses and evidence before them.
New hearings will be held before an ALJ other than one of the five named in the lawsuit.
Applicants whose cases are decided by any of the five named ALJs for 30 months after the settlement is approved will have their claims reviewed by a special unit within the SSA. If a new hearing is granted, it will be held before a different ALJ.
The SSA also agreed to conduct training programs to instruct experienced ALJs on properly adjudicating cases and provide mentors to veteran ALJs. The complaint filed in 2011 sought a reopening of the cases before the five ALJs as well as to compel the agency not to assign any of the five to other SSI or SSD cases in the future. But Walden said SSA personnel rules prohibited the implementation of that demand.
Carlotta Wells, an attorney for the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Division, defended the SSA.
Emilia Sicilia, Ann Biddle and Ian Feldman represented the Urban Justice Center.
"This settlement provides historic relief for our clients and all class members," Sicilia, director of the Disability Advocacy Project at the Urban Justice Center's Mental Health Project, said in a statement. "For years, these biased ALJs have used every rationale to deny eligible claimsmany class members have been forced to rely on friends, family or public assistance simply to afford necessities while their claims languished, only to be unfairly denied by these ALJs. Some even became homeless when they were unable to pay their rent. We are thrilled that these vulnerable individuals will now receive fair hearings in Queens."
The press release announcing the settlement noted that since the filing of the lawsuit denial rates in Queens have fallen significantly and are now more in line with national averages.