For those of us in Social Security law practice, it is evident that the hearing offices in Northern California, Reno and Hawaii are taking longer to issue written decisions following hearings. It has been publicized that the waiting times to obtain hearings has slowed across the U.S., and we have passed along the statistics showing these delays in a separate article. But less well publicized have been the longer periods it is taking for judges to issue decisions, both favorable and unfavorable, after the hearing is finished.
The problem does not occur in every case, as we sometimes see decisions issued within a week or two after the hearing. But in our firm’s experience, some of our clients are now waiting two, three, even six months after their hearing to receive a decision from the judge. These delayed decisions are even occurring when the judges indicate during the hearing that they intend to issue a fully favorable decision, or when there is no need to submit additional evidence after the hearing.
These delays in decisions cause real hardship for many of our clients, especially given the fact that a fully favorable Judge’s decision triggers the release of essential funds and potentially life-saving health insurance, resources that our clients have already waited too long to obtain through the long Social Security appeals process.
So what is up?
From observation, and from talking to judges and staff at hearing offices in the area, the reasons for the greater delays in issuance of decisions are caused by many factors:
- Budget cuts and freezes to operation budgets have resulted in greater reduction in the number of attorney staff and other decision writers who help the judges prepare decisions. SSA has taken to having "cells” of attorneys/decision writers in locations in Los Angeles, Baltimore, and other cities preparing decisions for our local Judges. These attorneys and decision writers are not as familiar with local practices, and it seems clear that not having these personnel in the same physical locations as the judges is causing inefficiencies and delays.
- Judges have been receiving training from SSA personnel on how to write unfavorable decisions in a manner which is more “program compliant” and (perhaps) more defensible when claimants and their attorneys appeal the denial decisions to the Appeals Council and the U.S. federal courts. These more detailed and extensive decisions appear to be taking longer to issue, thus further burdening our clients who need to plan their future, or appeal that decision for appellate relief.
- Judges and other personnel use a software program known as “FIT” to prepare decisions. In past years, individual judges would sometimes ask our office to prepare a proposed FIT decision so as to shorten the time the favorable decision could be issued after the hearing. Our office still has the software, but has been advised that attorney participation in preparing the favorable decisions is no longer being promoted as good judicial practice by SSA directive.
- For reasons which are not clear, SSA diminished the role of SSA senior staff attorneys who were empowered to write fully favorable decisions to resolve a case even before the hearing. These OTR (on the record) favorable decisions by attorney staff were a great aid to many of our clients in past years, but SSA suspended/reduced this program, which allowed more efficient issuance of these time-saving decisions.
Restoring hearing office attorney and decision-writer staffing at the local level and permitting “bench decisions” and On the Record decisions once again would greatly reduce the unreasonable delays, and permit true “due process” for claimants in our region.
Average Waiting Times for Final Decision after Hearing
The table below shows the average waiting time to receive a final decision after a hearing is held on a claim for Social Security disability benefits. For the hearing offices in Northern California, Nevada and Hawaii listed below, the average number of days between filing a request for a hearing and receiving a final disposition on the claim for disability benefits ranges from approximately 500 days (Honolulu) to over 600 days (Oakland, San Jose, and San Rafael). Waiting times have increased significantly over the past several years. In June 2013, the average waiting time in these hearing offices ranged from 282 to 384 days. In June 2015, the range is 362 to 457 days, representing a 16% to 22% increase in waiting time in two years. As of October 2018, the range is between 544 and 708 days, representing yet another significant increase in wait times.
|Hearing Office||# of Days for Final Decision|
Source: Social Security Administration