Back in August, 2007, I wrote a blog post entitled “How Long Do I Have to Wait for my Hearing Decision.” Back then I reported that in most cases, a claimant would have to wait two to three months for a hearing decision.
Fast forward to 2009. That two to three month period is now four to six months. Here’s why: about 18 months ago, the Social Security Administration convinced Congress to allocate more money to hire new administrative law judges, and SSA immediately hired around 100 new judges. At the same time, Social Security put into process its conversion from paper files to electronic files and they created the infrastructure to provide for video hearings.
In Atlanta, where I practice, SSA created a video hearing ODAR office in Marietta, Georgia with three hearing rooms available to handle video hearings.
The good news – Social Security is now equipped to offer claimants administrative hearings. The bad news: the hearing offices often do not have enough support staff to process all of the decisions being issued by new judges and judges appearing by video.
As I noted back in 2007, the judges themselves do not actually write the decisions – that task is assigned to “decision writers” – individuals who may be staff lawyers or paralegals who are not in attendance at the hearings but who prepare the decisions for the judges’ review.
Even though the decision writers follow a standard hearing template, the decision has to be written, proofread and sent to the judge for review. Since the judge may not see a decision for weeks or months after the hearing, he most likely will not remember the case, meaning that he will have to review the file and verify that the decision reflects his thoughts.
Because of the volume, I am seeing delays of four to six months between the hearing dates and the issuance of a decision.
This delay can be especially frustrating for claimants who are expecting favorable decisions. In some cases, judges announce at the hearing that they plan to approve a particular case. The claimant leaves the hearing office happy, knowing that a big lump sum check is headed his way along with monthly benefits and access to Medicare. Imagine how frustrated that claimant will become when there is a six month wait in the issuance of a decision.
Unfortunately there is just not a whole lot anyone can do about these growing delays. As an advocate for my clients, the last thing I want to do is anger a judge by demanding that my cases be moved to the front of the line. Social Security judges work hard and they know that there is a decision processing problem. Complaining by a lawyer or a claimant is not going to help. And since the judge has the power to change his mind, I am not a big fan of demanding action by calling your Congressperson.
While frustration and anger is understandable, there is no remedy unless and until Social Security hires more staff to support its expanded judicial corps.