This post contains portions of an interesting interview of retired SSA Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), Charles Stark. Former ALJ Stark was interviewed by Laurie Robbins of Robbins & Associates. Laurie Robbins has been licensed to practice law in Georgia since 1977 and handles social security disability claims/personal injury matters.
Charles Stark served 17 years as an Administrative Law Judge for the Social Security Administration in Connecticut and then Baltimore. Prior to becoming an SSA ALJ, Stark worked for 17+ years with the Interstate Commerce Commission (now known as the Surface Transportation Board). Most of his work during those years was in front of the U.S. Court of Appeals where he argued cases to Justices Scalia, Ginsberg (both in the DC circuit) and Kennedy (9th Circuit) when they sat in the various courts of appeals. One year prior to becoming an SSA ALJ, Stark briefed National Railroad Passenger Corp. v. Boston & Maine, 503 U.S. 407 (1992). The case was argued by Chief Justice John Roberts (at the time the acting solicitor general).
Question: I am sure that you saw many changes in the Social Security System in your years as a Judge. Can you tell me about some of the changes?
Answer: I think the most commonly known is the rise in case backlogs over the years and the tremendous pressure put on the administrative law judges to decide more and more cases. I would say that’s paramount as far as changes and there were marginal changes in the rules that we applied (a series of social security rulings in 1996) that sharpened the standards that the judges applied but mostly it’s the rising case backlogs and pressures that come from them.
Question: What do you attribute the backlog to?
Answer: I think its aging baby boomers and the nature of the economy. The backlog always increase in economic downturns but now we are also faced with the demographics (more and more people turning 50 and above). Once you are over 50, between the economic conditions facing all the workers plus the natural course of the aging process/illness--more and more people are applying for disability.
Question: Do you think that there’s going to be an improvement in the case backlog and the delay?
Answer: I think video conference has helped ease the backlog because you can have judges from all over the country helping out an extreme problem. Overall, it’s just one incremental tool that is helped the government tread water or lose ground, but it hasn’t turned the tide.
Question: Do you see any trends in the social security claims that will affect the claimants in the future?
Answer: Well, there is an overall trend right now and that is in the personnel. It’s not just the social security its other agencies as well. The government is going through a cycle where older workers are retiring and turning over the reins to younger workers and that includes staff people, staff attorneys, clerical people and that also includes the judges. In the case of Judges, when you walk through the door from another agency or another type of legal practice, it takes a while to learn what you need to learn to be efficient as an administrative law judge and that slows the production up. Not only does it slow the production but I think that as time goes on and the Judge becomes more seasoned his judicial outlook changes. Most of my colleagues have always strived to treat the claimants fairly across claimants from one claimant to another....But that’s where the experience of time and learning and learning about anatomy and physiology comes in and all the Judges get it over time. I remember when I was first appointed one of the old senior judges who mentored me said well, Charlie, as time goes on you’ll grant more cases because you just have more experience and you end up granting more cases. So if in you are in a period where Judge corps is turning over and older judges are retiring you may have find human nature favorable disposition rating is lowered until the judge corps completes the learning curve and matures. I think that’s just an inevitable result of where the agency is right now. It’s nothing wrong with this, its just that too many seasoned Judges are leaving the bench.
Question: Along those lines do you think social security needs to have more Judges?
Answer: That’s a consistent position that the association of administrative law judges have taken over the years that there is not enough judges to do the work. I certainly felt it in my case and its one of the reasons I why I decided to retire. I had a certain standard that I wanted to meet in every case and I was given so much time on the job to meet the standard. I felt it was time for me to retire and other Judges made the same decision.
Question: Do you see a trend towards social security benefits for disability getting harder to obtain?
Answer: I think I touched on that earlier. As more seasoned Judges retire and newer judges come on board, it may be that more cases are denied but gradually as the newer judges get more seasoned and experienced, I think the trend will reverse itself again...I found in my cases that a lot of the members of the bar trusted me and when I told them that I was having trouble on a certain part of the case lot of times it turned on onset date. When the claimant did really become disabled? The state agency might end up denying because the onset date wasn’t clear enough. A lot of times cases were decided and appeared to be a favorable decision because the claimant amended the alleged onset date so the disposition for statistical purposes appeared to be a fully favorable decision but really wasn’t. It was picking an onset date that was more recent than was originally claimed or when counsel validly tried to get older evidence to justify an earlier date (lots of successes).
Question: Did you see any cases from the list of serious illnesses that should automatically qualify the claimant for social security disability? And why would they qualify in your Court?
Answer: Because often times the evidence didn’t crystallize ahead of time the government just didn’t have that evidence and that’s particularly true in the medical listings of impairment because the medical listings is a matter of subjective signs and symptoms that in the aggregate rise to the level of objective findings. The DSM lists a number of mental subjective findings that if you have a cluster of them the law will see that the cluster as a pattern of setting an objective finding....
Question: You mentioned the mental illness, did you during your 17 years see an increase in the number of claimant’s with mental illness applying for social security?
Answer: I can't say that. I think I saw mental illness from day one. I think I saw increases in drug related mental illnesses as time went on but not mental illness in general. An overall percentage I would say that 25% of the cases I heard involved mental illness. If you talk about drugs I would say 10%. I’ve never qualified this I’m just giving you numbers of the top of my head.
We would like to thank former ALJ Stark and Laurie Robbins for this informative interview! The Bishop Law Firm represents clients in Raleigh, Cary, Durham and surrounding areas in North Carolina. Give us a call today for a free case evaluation!