Administrative law judges who evaluate disability claims for the Social Security Administration want a federal court to ease a workload that they say makes errors more likely — the latest in a series of challenges confronting the Woodlawn-based agency.
In a federal lawsuit filed this month, 1,400 judges said the agency's expectation that they decide as many as 700 claims per year is causing them to rush evaluations and possibly approve claims that should be denied, at a potential cost of millions of taxpayer dollars.
"The Social Security Administration seems to care only about quotas," said Judge Randall Frye, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges. "Case quotas prevent judges from devoting necessary time to the most complex cases resulting in waste and abuse."
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, comes as the judges try to make progress on a backlog that is keeping disabled individuals waiting hundreds of days for decisions.
Congress, meanwhile, has been unable to agree on a fix to ensure the long-term financial stability of Social Security. And President Barack Obama has yet to name a successor to former Commissioner Michael J. Astrue, a Bush administration appointee who stepped down in February.
Carolyn Colvin, a former secretary of the Maryland Department of Human Resources, is acting commissioner.
Timonium lawyer Sharon Christie, who represents clients in disability claims, said the absence of a permanent leader is affecting the agency. Clients appealing agency-level denials typically are waiting two years for a hearing, she said.
To cut through the backlog, she said, "you need someone at the top who is really strong in their leadership skills."
The Social Security Administration declined to comment on the lawsuit, as did the office of the U.S. Attorney in Chicago, which will represent the agency in court.
The agency had not filed a response to the lawsuit as of Friday, and a hearing had not been scheduled.
The administrative judges, who hear appeals of claims denials, asked the court to bar Social Security officials from imposing what they characterize as essentially a quota on their work. They said expectations outlined in an agency directive violate the Social Security Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.
The judges said the number of disability claims has increased from fewer than 300,000 in 1990 to nearly 850,000 today. Applications have grown by 30 percent since 2007. And an individual claim file can contain more than 500 pages of medical records, notes from doctors and evidence provided by experts.
Frye, a judge based in Charlotte, N.C., said the volume of claims the agency expects judges to decide violates the principle of due process and drives up the country's cost of providing disability benefits.
He and his colleagues said the expectations create pressure on judges to approve claims, because approvals take less time than denials.
The judges said in the lawsuit that a quota system "tends to dictate the outcome of cases in favor of the claimant," to the detriment of taxpayers and the public treasury.
While Social Security benefits are paid when workers reach retirement age, people who have suffered permanent disabilities that prevent them from holding a job must apply for benefits from the Social Security Administration. Both funds are projected to run out of money in the coming years.
Social Security benefits are funded chiefly through payroll taxes. The lifetime payout to a disabled American, including Social Security and Medicare coverage, averages about $260,000. In 2011, the Social Security Administration paid about $132 billion in disability benefits.
At the current rate of spending, the Disability Insurance Trust Fund is projected to be exhausted by 2016. That would trigger a 21 percent cut in benefits payments to nearly 11 million disabled Americans.
"One way to protect the treasury and help deserving claimants is to end the quota system," Frye said. He claimed "quotas" are the result of "poor management."
"Judges shouldn't have to file a complaint in federal court to eliminate glaring problems in the disability adjudication process," he said. "However, an acting commissioner may not feel that she has the authority to make the necessary changes and correct problems."
The White House declined to comment on when President Obama would nominate a new commissioner for Social Security. He still is filling out his second-term Cabinet.
Since January, Obama has made 92 nominations, according to White House figures. Thirteen have received Senate votes.
The judges said they have been "scapegoated" by the agency's senior management for the backlog of cases. "Instead of attacking the underlying reality of the delays — more claims and failure to allocate adequate resources — the SSA has imposed an illegal production quota," the lawsuit said.
The judges allege the agency imposed a quota by establishing benchmarks in 2007 that allotted the judges a certain number of days for each stage of their evaluation process.
Judges who haven't met the workload expectation have been subjected to reprimands, "counseling," and "threats and intimidation," they said in the lawsuit.
Frye said the judges and the agency should be working toward a common goal: "To ensure due process, protect the trust fund and bring justice to the American people."
Baltimore Sun Washington correspondent John Fritze contributed to this article.