(From the January 2018 NOSSCR Newsletter): The Social Security Administration (SSA) published a Federal Register notice (83 Fed. Reg. 711) on January 8, 2018 that extended the authority of its attorney advisor program. The program was due to expire on February 5, 2018 but has now been extended until August 3, 2018.
In the Federal Register notice, SSA explains that the program allows certain attorney advisors to conduct prehearing proceedings and issue fully favorable decisions in cases where the record supports them. It was intended to be a temporary way for the agency to manage a large number of claims awaiting decisions at the ALJ level. Since it has never been made permanent, it must be renewed periodically. SSA states that “From 2008 [when the final rule about the program was promulgated] to the present, the number of pending hearing requests has continued to remain at a high level”; SSA’s budget estimates forecast that the agency will receive 645,000 requests for ALJ hearings in Fiscal Year 2018.
However, although SSA has extended the authority for the attorney advisor program, the agency has severely reduced the number of decisions issued by attorneys rather than by ALJs. Monthly processing time statistics published in previous issues of the NOSSCR Forum indicate that not a single attorney advisor decision was issued in the first two months of Fiscal Year 2018, a time when ALJs issued decisions or dismissals on more than 103,000 claims and over a million people were awaiting hearings. In the prior four Fiscal Years, there was an average of 1,138 attorney advisor decisions each year.
SSA has indicated that attorney advisors are now writing decisions for ALJs to reduce the backlog of cases where hearings have been held and there are not sufficient other support staff to write decisions. SSA attributes this problem to the fact that they were able to hire ALJs but not support staff during 2017’s hiring freeze. The agency has said that it intends to hire and train additional support staff so that attorney advisors can return to their prior work, and the most recent version of the CARES backlog reduction plan still includes a National Adjudication Team of attorneys who will screen cases and issue fully favorable decisions when appropriate. But SSA’s ability to carry out this and other backlog-reduction measures depends on how much administrative funding Congress allows it.
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By: Joyce Trudeau of Premier Disability Services, LLC®