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New York Law Journal
September 8, 2011

Work of Administrative Law Judges Generates Concern About Disparities
By Daniel Wise

A study by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University found that in 80 percent of the 155 hearing offices studied, the difference in grant rates between the ALJ who approved the highest percentage of petitions and the ALJ who granted the lowest percentage was at least 30 percentage points. Further, it said the disparities actually grew in the last five years. The Queens Office of Disability Adjudication of Review ranked 47th out the 155 studied with a spread of 50.3 percentage points between the two ALJs with the highest and lowest grant rates for the 18 months that ended on March 31, 2011. However, others of the 10 review offices in New York covered by the study showed similarly large disparities: 48.7 points in Brooklyn, 40.1 in Manhattan and 31.6 in the Bronx, for example. Since characteristics of disability applications may vary considerably from office to office, TRAC's conclusions are limited to a comparison within individual offices. The study did not compute an average nationwide rate and cautions against comparing the grant rates of different offices. Judges within the individual offices are assigned cases on a random basis, so the proportion of claims granted by each judge should be roughly the same, the study reasons. Thus, it argues that "these differences cannot be explained on the basis of the worthiness of the cases handled by individual judges." Instead, the two authors, Susan Long, a professor of managerial statistics at Syracuse and David Burnham, a former investigative reporter for The New York Times, wrote, "one or more other factors—such as the pre-existing predilections of the judges assigned—must be the source for these disparities." Moreover, the study comments that the findings show that "to a surprising extent the records of disability decisions show again and again that even within the individual offices there is not a clear consensus among the judges about which claims should be awarded versus which should be denied." The Social Security Administration issued a statement ripping TRAC's report as "unsupportable grandstanding masquerading as academic research." Because federal law gives disability ALJs "substantial decisional independence," the statement continued, variations among judges in the way they decide cases are "a predictable consequence of Congressional decisions."

Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, Syracuse University
Copyright 2011
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