A Social Security judge has collected somewhere in the neighborhood of half a million dollars over the past three years while sitting at home on administrative leave, according to a report that details just how much trouble the agency faces in trying to fire bad employees.
Neither Social Security nor the agency’s inspector general named the administrative law judge, known in governmentspeak as an ALJ, but the ordeal described by investigators and officials could be costing the government — or deserving disabled Americans — tens of millions of dollars in claims.
That is in addition to the money the judge has pocketed while not working.
“No incompetent federal employee deserves this much deference,” said former Sen. Tom Coburn, who led an investigation into Social Security disability fraud. “It informs us that significant change needs to be made. Not only is the ALJ in this case unqualified, he is a legal absconder of American taxpayer dollars.”
ALJs are charged with conducting reviews of Social Security benefits cases and issuing decisions. They approve tens of billions of dollars of awards each year.
But some ALJs appear to be doing little more than rubber-stamping applications, with approval rates as high as 95.7 percent of all cases. Others reject most cases, with one ALJ notching just a 12.7 percent allowance rate, according to the inspector general.
Those numbers are slight improvements from the last time investigators probed the matter in 2012, when the worst performers were one ALJ with a 99.7 percent approval rate and another with an 8.6 percent rate.
The inspector general identified the 12 highest and 12 lowest rates from 2012 and tracked them in the latest report, trying to figure out if any of them had improved by coming more in line with expectations, which average about 55 percent approval.
Seven of the 24 improved and were no longer among the outliers, while nine of the ALJs had left the agency altogether. One was moved from ALJ to senior attorney, and another six were still among the outliers.
And then there was the ALJ the agency has been trying to fire. That judge was first flagged for review in 2010 and had a follow-up review in 2013, and both times was deemed to have problems following the agency’s guidelines for making decisions.
After each review, the judge was allowed to resume work.
A third review in 2014 showed the problems were still happening, and the agency finally took steps to fire the ALJ, including placing the judge on administrative leave. But the ALJ was still fighting the case as of the report, issued late last month.
“An agency cannot unilaterally impose a disciplinary action on an ALJ. The agency can discipline an ALJ only after the Merit Systems Protection Board has determined that ‘good cause’ exists to do so,” said Nicole Tiggemann, a spokeswoman for the agency.
The proceedings can be drawn out, with each side allowed to engage in legal discovery and present evidence in a hearing before a board judge. There is also a provision for an appeal to the full board.
“Only after a final decision is issued may an agency then take disciplinary action against an ALJ. Under the law, throughout the full course of these proceedings, an ALJ continues to receive a salary from an agency until a final decision is issued,” Ms. Tiggemann said.
Social Security ALJs are hired at an average annual salary of about $160,000, according to data on federalpay.org, and can top out above $170,000, meaning that the judge in question has likely collected more than $500,000 during his time on leave.
ALJs play a critical role in deciding who gets benefits. A wrong adverse finding can deny someone their rightful claim, while an erroneous approval costs taxpayers.
One unscrupulous ALJ approved some $550 million in bogus disability claims as part of the scam run by Eric C. Conn.
Conn, a Kentucky lawyer, has pleaded guilty to paying off a network of doctors and psychologists to write fake medical reviews, and then paying the ALJ to rubber-stamp the applications.
Mr. Coburn used his Senate committee assignments in 2013 to shine the spotlight on Conn, who proclaimed himself “Mr. Social Security” and bragged about his success in getting clients approved.
Conn went on the lam early last month, cutting off his GPS ankle bracelet just days before he was to testify against a psychologist he paid for bogus evaluations. A man purporting to be Conn has since told Kentucky media that he has fled the country.
The ALJ he paid, David B. Daugherty, was one of those who notched a 99.7 percent approval rate in 2010. He has pleaded guilty to his role in Conn’s scheme and will be sentenced in August.
The Conn case served as a wake-up call for Social Security, which says it is making progress in getting judges to meet higher standards in their decisions, including cutting down on those who are churning out decisions.
The latest report does back that up. In 2010, most judges issued more than 500 decisions a year. Daugherty alone issued 1,375 decisions that year.
Now, just 26 percent of ALJs issue at least 500 decisions a year.
The agency also says that a high or low approval rate doesn’t mean an ALJ is failing. The agency said when it conducts a review it looks behind the decisions to see what the reasons are, in order to judge whether the judge was right.
The agency is also extraordinarily transparent, posting online a regularly updated tally of decision-making for every ALJ, and studying the data themselves to see what lessons to learn.
“Our efforts have paid off, as the agency has made significant progress in improving the quality of our hearing decisions,” Ms. Tiggemann said.