Sunday, November 14, 2010
Violence Against Social Security Judges Increasing.
The PowerPoint released by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the co-chairs of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform ("The Deficit Commission"), said we should "Reform Social Security for its own sake, not for deficit reduction."
Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit. Not now, not ever. However it has everything to do with political theater and public disinformation.
SocialSecurity is a political football, and now we are beginning the political Super Bowl Season.
Critics of Social Security have frequently made alarming claims about the future of the system to support calls for "reform". Opportunists are posturing and trying to humanize the Social Security Administration (SSA). In order to do that the first group they sieze upon to spot light are the Administrative Law Judges (ALJ) at SSA, the 1300-1400 judges who decide disability cases.
So now the SSA and its programs are at center stage of the public political debate. An avalanche of news articles have been triggered. One Associated Press article about violence against SSA ALJs became the most frequently Email-ed article on Yahoo within 48 hours of publication two days ago. However, the article can be very misleading without some insider background information.
The public is being manipulated with these articles. These articles are a diversion. They seek to make the judges appear as victims, while it is the American public who are being victimized. The judges are gatekeepers for the Social Security Trust Fund. To understand how and why read "socialNsecurity, Confessions of a Social Security Judge" at www.judgelondonsteverson.com.
The AP article "Violence Against Social Security Judges" could have been written 10 or even 20 years ago. Why now? The incidents cited are over 10 years old. The incidents of violence have not increased, only the threats. The threats are commonplace and go with the job.
The number one complain in disability cases in back pain. The second most common complain is a mental inpairment. Many of these claimants are seriously mentally impaired; some are certifiably insane. They talk out of their heads; and , they make threats. The ALJ is the first and sometimes only embodiment of the SSA and the Federal Governmant, so they make threats against them. But they have no means or opportunity to carry out the threats. So, by and large the threats are harmless.
Some judges will not hold a hearing without an armed Federal Protective Service officer in the hearing room. Not me. I would postpone the hearing first. I only had to do that once in my entire career as an ALJ.
Judges in Illinois were carrying guns to work in their brief cases 15 and 20 years ago. They probably still are today. The ones that I knew about, had permits to carry a fire arm. The state and the city fire arm licensing authorities must have been satisfied that there is and was a valid threat to their safety.
I have been threated. Attorneys representing claimants have been threated in my courtroom. I have heard things like "if I loose my benefits, I will kill you". That was said by a Mexican gang member with tear drops tatoos on his face and neck to an attorney in my court room.
I never let them know where I lived. I did not give out my home address. After work, I was always cautious and vigilant in the parking lot. We had to park in the same lot as the claimants. They knew our cars.
I never went straight home after work. I drove around and made sure no one was following me.
I lived less than one mile from the Downey Hearing Office. I was prepared to meet violence at the office but not at home. I was a military veteran, so danger and threats went with the job. However, my family was not to be put at risk. If I was going to be shot, it would be at the office, not at home. If a vengeful claimant was going to blow up something it was going to be the office, not my home. An Oklahoma City type of attack was acceptable, but not violence at my private residence where my wife and 3 little children lived.
In July 1990 the Downey, CA Office Of Hearings And Appeals (OHA) was at 11903 Downey Avenue. I was assigned to the Downey OHA, so I bought a house on Downey Avenue. It was less than two miles from my home to the office. I could have walked to work in half an hour. For many months I did not drive to work; I rode a bicycle. I stopped riding the bicycle when several vision impaired claimants almost ran me down in the parking lot. It was safer to drive than to get killed or injured on a bicycle. I was exposed to greater physical threats from routine anonymous claimants coming and going in the parking lot than I was from disgruntled revenge seeking claimants who intended to subject me to physical injury.
In the ALJ Training School in Fredericksberg, VA we told to try to remain anonymous in the field. Judge Tommy D. Capshaw told us to try to keep a low profile. He told us to get rid of the personalized license plates on our cars and to keep unlisted phone numbers. I rented a post office box for my personal mail. Periodicals, like Time and Newsweek magazine and the Christian Science Monitor, came to the office.
I never gave out my home address. My business cards listed the office address as my address. The cards were printed by SSA OHA without my request. Darlene Robertson, the office manager at OHA at that time, just came into my office one morning and gave me a box of cards.
I was the only ALJ who lived in Downey; all the other judges lived over 20 miles away in anonymous neighborhoods. David Chase Linehand kept an apartment in Downey, but he lived in San Bernadino, CA.
In about 1995 OHA moved to a new 15 year leased space above the Downey National Bank at 8345 Firestone Boulevard. This was one block off Downey Avenue, but it was one mile closer to my home. My commuting distance to work was cut in half.
This closer proximity to my home frightened me. I was concerned for the safety of my wife and children. All of my children were under 6 years of age. My wife was overly concerned and was frequently cautioning me never to give out our home address. She had seen some of the claimants entering and leaving the office and she was frightened by their appearance. Some of them looked dangerous at first glance.
We received complaints from the management of the bank downstairs that the claimants were disturbing their customers. Often claimants would enter the bank thinking they were at the OHA, which was on the second floor. Many claimants had complained that the Notice of Hearing was deficient was too vauge about the office address. The address in the Notice only gave a street address; it did not contain the suite number. Many claimants came to hearings late because they had had trouble locating the OHA. They had been in the bank downstairs, or they had gone to the Embassy Suites hotel next door.
My wife never allowed me to entertain the staff at our home because she did not want to give out our home address. We had hosted birthday parties for our children where one or two of the office staff had attended, but those were rare. Even though I lived closer to the office than any other judge, I tried to keep home and office as far away from each other as possible.
These were merely precautions. I had no illusions about how precarious our real safety net was. For the first five years I was a judge, our office had no security guard or agent from the Federal Protective Service. For the next ten years the guards in most offices did not search incoming claimants and were not allowed to use a wand to detect concealed metallic objects, such as guns or knives. For the next five years the office management staff appeared to spend so much time harassing the security guard that he spent as much time as possible away from his post avoiding management. Any safety measure could always be circumvented. Every e-mail sent can be retrieved with a few mouse strokes. Most claimants brought along a friend or family member who was a potential threat to the office personnel. One random glance or a photo snapped from a phone-camera at someone's social security number, and that number became a commodity for sale on the streets of Los Angeles. One phone call and our sanctuary could become our killing field. I was prepared to accept that level of risk at the office but not at home.
My next door neighbor was an elementary school teacher in Pico Rivera, CA. One day without any warning someone walked up to her front door and fired three shots through the front door. She had two children the same ages as my children. They were at home. We never found out what the motive was for the shooting. Fortunately no one was killed. To this day, we do not know who or why someone would shoot throngh her front door. This case remains an "unsolved shooting incident" at the Downey Police Department.
The AP reporter acknowledged that while no judges were harmed this year, there have been past incidents. The first example cited was that of a female judge in the Los Angeles Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR). She was hit over the head with a chair during a hearing. That is not exactly accurate, but I am familiar with the incident. The ALJ made some fundamental mistakes. The incident was avoidable. The judge deviated too far from standard procedure.
The ALJ in question had been transferred from the Long Beach Office of Hearings and Appeals (OHA) to the Downtown Los Angeles ODAR. She conducted the hearing in a formal manner. She wore a black robe; she sat at the judge's bench; she remained distant and removed from the claimant who was seated at the claimant's table which was below and separated from the judge's bench. Aside from the judge and the court reporter there were only two other people in the hearing room. Those were the claimant and her adult daughter. the claimant was not represented by an attorney and no attorney was present.
The claimant was alleging a mental impairment. She claimed that she could not engage in work on a consistent basis because her mental impairment prevented her from maintaining persistence, concentration, and pace. The ALJ was not convinced and something about her questions and her demeanor must have relayed that message to the claimant and her daughter. The judge was going to deny her claim. The conversational exchanges became heated. So, the ALJ closed the hearing and left the hearing room. Then she made a fundamental error.
The judge left the room, removed her robe, came back to the hearing room, and sat down at the table with the claimant and her daughter. It is not clear why she felt this little friendly chat was necessary. She had already as much as told the claimant that she was not going to win her case. She was not going to receive disability benefits. The conversation became heated. The claimant's daughter became excited and irate. The judge jumped up and tried to leave the hearing room and the daughter picked up a chair and threw it at the judge. This was predictable. The judge lowered the barrier and put herself on the same level with the claimant.
This is not the kind of violence that most judges are afraid of. Most judges would not have put themselves in this kind of a risky situation. This was practically an invitation to precipitate an incident. Moreover, usually the cases are so tightly scheduled, one after another, that most judges would not have had time to have a nice little touchie-feelie chat with a mentally deranged claimant who did not have a lawyer present to represent her.
WASHINGTON – Judges who hear Social Security disability cases are facing a growing number of violent threats from claimants angry over being denied benefits or frustrated at lengthy delays in processing claims.
There were at least 80 threats to kill or harm administrative law judges or staff over the past year — an 18 percent increase over the previous reporting period, according to data collected by the agency.
The data was released to the Association of Administrative Law Judges and made available to The Associated Press.
One claimant in Albuquerque, N.M., called his congressman's office to say he was going to "take his guns and shoot employees" in the Social Security hearing office. In Eugene, Ore., a man who was denied benefits said he is "ready to join the Taliban and hurt some people." Another claimant denied benefits told a judge in Greenville, S.C., that he was a sniper in the military and "would go take care of the problem."
"I'm not sure the number is as significant as the kind of threats being made," said Randall Frye, a judge based in Charlotte, N.C., and the president of the judges' union. "There seem to be more threats of serious bodily harm, not only to the judge but to the judge's family."
Fifty of the incidents came between March and August, including that of a Pittsburgh claimant who threatened to kill herself outside the hearing office or fly a plane into the building like a disgruntled tax protester did earlier this year at the Internal Revenue Service building in Austin, Texas.
A Senate subcommittee is expected to hear testimony on Monday at a field hearing in Akron, Ohio, about the rising number of threats, as well as the status of the massive backlog in applications for disability benefits, which are available to people who can't work because of medical problems.
Nearly 2 million people are waiting to find out if they qualify for benefits, with many having to wait more than two years to see their first payment.
Judges say some claimants become desperate after years of fighting for money to help make ends meet.
"To many of them, we're their last best hope for getting relief in the form of income and medical benefits," said Judge Mark Brown, a vice president of the judge's union and an administrative law judge hearing cases in St. Louis.
While no judges were harmed this year, there have been past incidents: A judge in Los Angeles was hit over the head with a chair during a hearing and a judge in Newburgh, N.Y., was punched by a claimant when he showed up for work.
In January, a gunman possibly upset about a reduction in his Social Security benefits killed a security guard during a furious gunbattle at a Nevada federal courthouse.
About 1,400 administrative law judges handle appeals of Social Security disability claims at about 150 offices across the country. Many are in leased office space rather than government buildings.
Brown said the agency provides a single private security guard for each office building that houses judges. Frye said he has sought more security and a review of the policy that keeps guards out of hearing rooms. He said Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue has promised to look into it.
Social Security Administration spokeswoman Trish Nicasio said the agency continually evaluates the level and effectiveness of office security and makes changes as needed.
"We are taking appropriate steps to protect our employees and visitors while still providing the level of face-to-face service the public expects and deserves," Nicasio said.
Visitors and their belongings are screened before entering hearing offices and hearings room, she said, and reception desks are equipped with duress alarms to notify the guard immediately of any disturbance.