2011-04-15 / Top Stories

Queens Residents File Social Security Suits

Eight disabled Queens residents have filed a class action lawsuit charging systematic bias against low-income disabled individuals seeking Social Security Disability benefits in Queens.

The suit against the U.S. Social Security Administration seeks the disqualification of five Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) at the Queens Office of Disability Assistance and Review (ODAR) because of their persistent denial of claims based on glaring and intentional legal and procedural errors, thereby depriving thousands of eligible claimants of benefits they need to survive.

The Queens ODAR has the third highest benefits-denial rate in the country and the highest benefitsdenial rate in the New York region, based on data covering decisions from 2005 to 2008. Almost all of the ALJs named in the suit rank high on the national list of top claims deniers. On appeal, the Queens ODAR suffers one of the highest remand rates in the country.

The lawsuit brought by the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project and the law firm of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, details a history of persistent and intentional denials by the ALJs of disability claims, and provides compelling evidence of their anti-claimant bias. These errors have persisted despite repeated warnings and reversals by the federal court in Brooklyn. In prior rulings, that court has used various phrases to describe the problem with ALJs from Queens ODAR, including:

Proceedings that were “a far cry” from the required standards;

Conduct that “raises the possibility that the ALJ was not seeking to neutrally develop the record, but rather to find support for the conclusions he had already formed”;

Analysis that was “deficient” and “incoherent”;

Delay that was “particularly egregious”;

Rationale that was “plucked from thin air”;

Analysis that “trivializes plaintiff’s impairments”;

Overall conduct that demonstrates “serious negligence and could possibly even suggest bias”;

While these findings came in individual cases over three years, this is the first lawsuit to weave those findings together, and with other evidence of bias, as a basis to seek the disqualification of most of the members (five of eight) of a local Social Security hearing office.

Eve Stotland, director of the Mental Health Project, Urban Justice Center, said, “We hope this lawsuit will bring an end to the well-known and flagrant bias our clients face every day. These ALJs have used any and every rationale to deny claims for many years. We look forward to the day when bias against disabled claimants is no longer tolerated.”

The five ALJs at the center of the lawsuit are Hearing Office Chief Administrative Law Judge David Nisnewitz, and ALJs Michael D. “Manuel” Cofresi, Seymour Fier, Marilyn P. Hoppenfeld, and Hazel C. Strauss. All have presided over thousands of cases, making the potential class of affected persons enormous.

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