The “system” itself can seem prejudiced against you, at times.

Sometimes there are good stories.  Like one recently told by the president of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives (NOSSCR).  She described, in a newsletter to members, that an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) called her before a hearing was to take place.  The judge graciously explained that, due to the snowy weather, the disability claimant did not have to appear personally.  Instead, provided the required factual questions could be answered, the work could be done remotely.

What makes this story so appreciated is that there are many stories that tilt in the opposite direction.

“Claimants’ representatives,” explains the NOSSCR newsletter, “have been frustrated over the years with ALJs who seem to exhibit a general bias toward disability claimants and with the inadequate procedures to address that bias.”

Being a disability claimant often means being met with resistance and prejudice by some ALJs.  The “system” itself can seem prejudiced against you, at times.

But one approach taken by claimants’ lawyers to combat this prejudice seems to be working.  In the past, a few class action lawsuits (where multiple absent parties – represented by one or a few present parties – join together to collectively sue a defendant or defendants) have been filed against ALJs alleging bias.  But these have been long, difficult, drawn-out cases.

Recently, however, a settlement was reached in one such lawsuit, filed in April of 2011.  The settlement (which still needs to be approved by the courts) “expressly denies any wrongdoing” by the multiple ALJs sued.  Still, the settlement sets up a special appeals process for claimants potentially wronged by these ALJs.  It’s estimated that there could be approximately 4,000 class members – parties to the lawsuit – affected.

More broadly, the settlement reaches beyond the specific parties involved.  The settlement requires the Social Security Administration to issue a ruling on fair ALJ procedures and how alleged ALJ bias should be addressed.  The impact of the ruling could be far reaching.  Additionally, the settlement requires the SSA to conduct training programs for ALJs on a number of issues related to fair procedure.

Hopefully, a more conscious system will lead to a more fair system; and disability claimants will see their efforts recognized and justified to a greater degree.

For more information, see Vol. 31, No. 1 of NOSSCR’s Social Security Forum.