The Social Security Administration (SSA) has begun effectuating its policy of concealing the name of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) from the attorney and the claimant until they enter the hearing room. According to the National Association of Social Security Representatives, (NOSSCR), the reason for the policy change is to prevent some representatives from “judge shopping,” by declining a National Hearing Center (NHC) video hearing, with an ALJ in Falls Church, VA, once the ALJ’s identity is revealed.
As far as the Atlanta area, in the past, video hearings with ALJs from Falls Church, VA were held at the Marietta Social Security District Office. However, once the Office of Adjudication and Review (ODAR) opened in Covington, GA, these video hearings were discontinued. Many of us were relieved, since the quality of the video was poor. Secondly, the ALJ did not have an opportunity to view our clients in person, which many attorneys feel is necessary for the ALJ to observe a client’s mental demeanor and/or physical limitations. So, given the fact that areas such as Atlanta no longer have video hearings with the NHC ALJs, SSA’s policy of not revealing the ALJ is nonsensical.
Why do attorneys and claimants want to know the name of the ALJ before walking into the hearing room? First, the way ALJs conduct social security disability hearings vary greatly. Some ALJs require the attorney to ask a majority of questions, whereas other ALJs prefer to ask the questions themselves. If an attorney knows the ALJ asks a majority of questions, he/she can prepare the client to answer the questions that a particular Judge usually asks. Each Judge has a different personality, as well, and telling a client what to expect from a particular ALJ helps diffuse the stress of testifying.
We have another issue in the Atlanta area. Hearings are scheduled and hearing notices are sent by mail without contacting the representative or claimant about availability. Unfortunately, some ODAR clerks are not always entering the hearings they schedule in SSA’s centralized computer system nor are they always checking for conflicts on the system. Then, multiple conflicting hearings are scheduled on the same day, and attorneys no longer know which ALJ’s clerk to contact to address the problem.
Finally, vocational experts, who testify about a claimant’s past work at the hearing and answer questions about which jobs a claimant can or cannot perform in the regional or national economy based upon certain physical and/or mental limitations, are also unhappy with the change in policy. Their case preparation also varies based upon the type of questions asked by a particular Judge. Some may not receive CDs with the vocational evidence from ODAR and no longer know which ODAR clerk to contact for a copy. Nor are all the ALJs pleased with the policy change, because some ALJs, for example, require a prehearing brief.
NOSSCR has alerted members that a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request case is now pending in the Eastern District Court of Missouri, and research is underway to examine the possibility of a constitutional challenge of the SSA Commissioner’s new policy. Many representatives have contacted their Senators and Representatives asking for a reinstatement of the practice of providing the name of the ALJ presiding over a client’s case. Claimants should do the same. If you have any questions, please contact the Law Offices of Kathleen Flynn at 404-479-4431 or please visit our website at www.kathleenflynnlaw.com