Federal Judges Reprimand Social Security as Disability Cases and Denials Stack Up

September 4, 2023

The numbers paint a disheartening picture of the state of Social Security Disability cases in 2023.

More than one million people are currently waiting for Social Security to review their applications for disability benefits, according to the nonpartisan data association USAFacts.

At the same time, the average processing time has also hit a new record high—7.5 months. (As recently as 2020, the average processing time was four months.) The percentage of backlogged cases has risen in 44 out of 50 states and the District of Columbia from 2019 to 2022. Illinois had the 12th largest change—a whopping 77% increase in the number of backlogged cases.

The backlog is especially troublesome because lengthy closures at Social Security field offices due to the COVID pandemic caused applications for disability benefits to plummet (the data show that Social Security Disability Insurance, SSDI, awards to workers who became disabled fell 15% in 2021, which is addition to an 11% drop in 2020) and the application numbers have not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels.

By yet another measure—the number of people helped by Social Security—customer service at field offices has also not yet rebounded to pre-COVID levels. The average daily visitors at all field offices was only about 51,000 last year compared with more than 174,000 in 2019. But even before the pandemic, customer service at Social Security offices was deteriorating because scores of field offices had been shuttered.

Social Security says they have has been struggling due to staffing shortages and insufficient budgets. Acknowledging delays in service and long waits for disability decisions, the Social Security Administration (SSA) asked for an increase in funding and Congress allocated the agency a $400 million increase for fiscal year 2022.

But it is not just the backlog that concerns advocates for people with disabilities. Approval rates are down at every level of review, according to Social Security’s statistics.

The percentage of people who apply for a hearing and are subsequently awarded benefits has fallen precipitously over the past few years. One reason for the decline is a change in Social Security’s procedures implemented in 2017. Judges can now give equal consideration to the applicant’s doctor and to a second opinion from a doctor appointed by Social Security.

Previously they gave more weight to the applicant’s doctor. Chicago disability attorney Tom Nash points out that, “with these changes, evidence from a medical consultant employed to do a one-time brief examination, or a medical consultant the SSA had do a review of the paper file and may have never examined the individual, is given the same weight as the evidence from a physician who may have been treating a disability applicant for years.”

The new rule also gives even less weight to disability determinations by other agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs. For example, a Veteran who receives 100% service-connected disability benefits from the VA may still not be deemed “disabled” by the Social Security Administration.

In scathing opinions, both conservative and liberal federal judges have sharply criticized Social Security’s handling of disability cases.

A claimant who has been denied benefits in their initial application can appeal and have their case decided by a Social Security administrative law judge. Decisions of administrative law judges are reviewed by federal judges if the disability claimants take their cases to a higher level of appeal.

According to Social Security’s own data, in the last two years about 60 percent of SSDI appeals that reach the federal courts are remanded, which means they are sent back to the SSA for further review.

This means that federal judges found fault in nearly six out of every ten cases. The judges’ objections cited legal errors, the disregard of medical evidence, and incorrect determinations of whether disabled applicants are able to maintain consistent employment.

“Whatever the reasons, the wait times and error-ridden rejections for our most vulnerable population, people with job-ending health impairments, are unconscionable,” Nash maintains. “Hard-working Americans who are struck down by illness or injury deserve a speedy and fair decision about the benefits they have rightfully earned by paying into Social Security, and that they qualify for because they are unable to work.”

If you need Social Security Disability benefits, the current state of disability claims magnifies the need to have a team of strong Social Security Disability lawyers who thoroughly understand disability law and all the procedures.

The disability attorneys at Nash Disability Law in the Chicago area are seasoned experts who will fight for your rights. If you are considering filing for benefits, or if you believe you have been unfairly denied the benefits, contact us today for a free evaluation of your situation.