Director, Policy Futures
The rate at which Social Security administrative law judges (ALJs) approve claims for disability benefits dropped for the fifth straight year in 2014, new Social Security Administration (SSA) data show. The ALJ allowance rate has fallen from 63 percent in 2008 and 2009 to 45 percent in 2014. (See figure.) Thus, claims that ALJs are “out of control” are without merit.
Claimants for Social Security Disability Insurance (DI) or Supplemental Security Income disability benefits apply to SSA, which rejects people who are technically disqualified (chiefly because they lack a sufficient work history) and submits the rest to each state’s disability determination service (DDS) for medical evaluation. If denied, the applicant may ask the DDS to reconsider, and then — if rejected again — appeal to an ALJ. (Many denied applicants give up at each stage and don’t appeal.)
The allowance rate has been considerably higher at the ALJ level than the DDS level, which has led to concerns about inconsistency in decisions. Critics charge that SSA has prioritized speed over accuracy in decision-making, resulting in many ALJs awarding benefits to claimants who don’t meet the programs’ requirements.
The continuing drop in the allowance rate likely stems in large part from SSA’s increased monitoring and oversight of ALJs in response to these criticisms. (The Great Recession also contributed. Higher unemployment leads more workers to apply for DI, but approval rates fall.)
SSA now monitors ALJs more closely to identify those with extremely high or low allowance rates, assigns fewer cases to each ALJ, assesses the quality of ALJ decisions by reviewing a sample of allowances before they take effect, and has given ALJs new tools to help them review their own performance.
Since these management improvements took effect, the number of ALJs with unusually high allowance rates has fallen very sharply (from about 30 in 2007-2009 to seven in 2013), as has the number of quality issues in their decisions, according to SSA’s Inspector General.
Although allowance rates remain higher at the ALJ level than at the initial level, it is important to remember that ALJs often see claimants whose condition has deteriorated in the 18 months or so since their application was turned down and whose application is better documented (typically with the help of an attorney) than at the DDS stage.