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June 01, 2014

ABA educates congressional and agency staff with mock SSA disability hearings on Capitol Hill

Staff from various congressional office and federal agencies gathered on Capitol Hill May 20 for a mock Social Security Administration (SSA) disability appeals hearing sponsored by 10 ABA entities and coordinated by the ABA Standing Committee on Governmental Affairs. The free mock hearings, which have been offered since 2004, involve ABA volunteers portraying those who participate in SSA hearings. Jodi B. Levine, a SSA administrative law judge (ALJ) in Oklahoma, has been a part of these events since the beginning and offers some insights below.

How did the ABA mock SSA hearings begin? 

The hearings are a result of meetings with congressional committee staff during ABA Day in Washington several years ago. Congressional staff in Washington and in their home districts are asked to assist their constituents and provide their members of Congress with information on legislation and oversight. It dawned on me that many on Capitol Hill never had seen a disability hearing because these hearings are closed. I offered that we could present a basic hearing so that congressional staff (and even congressional members) could see what is involved and have the opportunity to ask basic questions about the disability process. The important point is that we are presenting just the "facts" and not trying or intending to mix this with a sales pitch for any particular viewpoint or legislation.  

We now have presented these mock hearings on Capitol Hill six times over the years and have presented them in other venues as well. Several were done in conjunction with ABA Meetings where the public were invited. We also have presented mock hearings in coordination with one of our partners – the association’s AIDS Coordinating Committee − to social workers, case managers and others who work with and represent those living with HIV and AIDS.

What roles are played by ABA volunteers?  

Our cast portrays the judge, claimant, attorney, medical expert and vocational expert.

Can you briefly explain the disability appeals process?

Simply, a person files an application with the SSA seeking either/or both Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income. To establish entitlement, a person must establish that he/she is not working due to a severe medical condition (physical or mental) that meets or equals the listed medical conditions in the regulations, and, if not, that he or she is unable to perform past relevant work the individual performed over the past 15 years and is unable to perform any other type of work that exists in the region where he or she lives or around the nation.

What are the most serious problems faced by an ALJ who is considering one of these cases?

Time and limited resources of staff and equipment. There are a large number of cases at the agency, and the agency, the claimants and the public expect and demand that these cases be handled expeditiously. The challenge or tension is that judges must provide due process to claimants, and this takes time. Files contain hundreds and sometimes thousands of pages of complicated medical records that must be read and considered. Decisions must be made independently and impartially. To do this, judges must be independent, impartial and of the highest ethical standard to withstand the pressure merely to move cases along or to cut corners just to close a file. This can be difficult with the enormity of caseloads and the pressure the agency has to move cases, but the claimants, the agency and the American public who employ these judges deserve to have ethical, independent and impartial decision makers. 

 Can you explain why you feel it is so important for congressional staff to understand the process?

If I am expected to review or judge something, I want to understand it. I expected that congressional staff felt the same. I also felt it important for them to experience what it is like to be in a hearing where someone is expected to talk about highly personal things in front of strangers; and where someone is expected to judge someone's life and whether that person is in sufficient pain and/or ill health to be unable to function in a work situation. Empathy. The people who are claimants are not numbers and each case is different. 

It is important for the staff to understand that a due process hearing means that the claimant has a full opportunity to present his or her case, to have an attorney or representative zealously and ethically represent him or her, and to have a judge who is an impartial independent decision maker, a trier of fact and applier of the law who operates at a high level of ethical conduct. My expectation is that once the staffers see, feel and understand what a hearing is they better can address the problems we − the judges, attorneys, claimants and the agency −  face as we strive to provide claimants the due process they deserve even if that person is not eligible and entitled to benefits. 

What have you achieved through these events?

We have established that we, the ABA, are a good resource for information. We have built good relationships with those working on Capitol Hill and with leadership and members of the agency. We have established that we want to work with everyone to maintain and improve the integrity of the process. The success we have achieved is due in large part to our cast of volunteers and the great support from the ABA sections and divisions and the Governmental Affairs Office, which have partnered with us. I thank them and know that I, we, owe them a huge debt for providing understanding and information about this important legal event in people's lives.

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