Reduction of SSA Field Office Hours Delays Disability Decisions

On August 7, 2014, the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released an Audit Report regarding the effects of SSA’s reduction in field office operating hours. As of January 2013, SSA’s field offices, which are the primary locations for the public to obtain face-to-face services from SSA, closed to the public one hour earlier each week day and every Wednesday at noon. As a result, field offices are now open to the public 27 hours per week whereas they were previously open 35 hours per week.

As a result of the reduction in hours, the OIG found that “[a]verage public wait times increased.” The average field office wait time went from 14.4 minutes in July 2011 to 30.5 minutes in November 2013 – “more than double the wait time before the reduction in hours began. “In addition, reduced hours “created customer lines out the [field office] door because of insufficient lobby seating to handle the increased visitor volume per hour. At times, visitors waited outside in the rain.”

The OIG concluded that the reduction in field office hours led to a longer wait time for decisions on disability claims during fiscal year 2013.

I echo and support the sentiments of David Cox, Sr., the President of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), who, in a recent Washington Post article, called for proper funding of SSA so that Americans who have earned Social Security benefits through a lifetime of work are fairly and timely served. Individuals of retirement age or with disabilities and who have paid FICA taxes out of every paycheck to fund the Social Security system deserve better treatment from their government. 

My Opposition to Congress’ Attempt to Limit Social Security Claimants’ Ability to Appeal Adverse Decisions in Federal Court

Earlier today, I wrote to express the following thoughts and opinions to Senator Mary Landrieu, Senator David Vitter, and Congressman Charles Boustany:

Dear Elected Representatives:

I am writing to respectfully urge you to oppose Amendment 195 to the House’s Continuing Resolution.  Amendment 195 would temporarily suspend the payment of attorneys’ fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), 5 U.S.C.A. § 504.  The passage of Amendment 195 into law would make it nearly impossible for Social Security claimants to appeal adverse decisions by the Social Security Administration (SSA).

When your constituents apply for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB), SSA, an executive branch agency, makes an administrative decision on the application.  On occasion, SSA renders fundamentally flawed decisions that violate a claimant’s right to due process.  The only way to remedy these violations is to file a civil action in a United States District Court against SSA.

I am one of the few attorneys in Southwest Louisiana that routinely represents Social Security claimants in federal court, and I prosecute these cases on essentially a contingent basis.  If the claimant prevails, then under EAJA, I can petition the court to be paid on an hourly basis for my time.  If the claimant loses, I receive no fee at all.  Accordingly, I only bring meritorious cases.

My clients do not have the means to pay me out of pocket to appeal a case to federal court because they are all out of work and have no income.  To be eligible for disability benefits, claimants must be out of work for at least one year; thus, without the availability of EAJA fees, disabled workers have no way to seek redress in federal court for the SSA’s violation of their due process rights.  This is of particular concern since DIB is financed by FICA taxes deducted from every paycheck a worker earns.  In other words, after SSA takes hard-earned money out of a worker’s paycheck to fund DIB, it can then can arbitrarily deny a worker’s claim after he or she becomes disabled.  Without the availability of EAJA fees, SSA’s arbitrary violations of claimants’ due process rights will go unremedied.  

EAJA was passed to correct this very problem, because as you know, a right without a remedy is no right at all. Yes, economic times are tough, but stripping fundamental protections from disabled workers is not the solution.  So long as SSA decides claims in a reasonable fashion and in accordance with due process, there is no need to bring cases to federal court or to pay EAJA fees.  Allowing Amendment 195 to pass into law, however, will remove a necessary check on SSA, will undermine the separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches, and will leave some of your most vulnerable constituents with no practical way to remedy violations of their right to due process under the U. S. Constitution.

If you or your staff would like further information on the issues discussed herein, please feel free to contact me or the National Association of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives (NOSSCR), of which I am a sustaining member.

In closing, I respectfully urge you to oppose Amendment 195 to the Continuing Resolution. 

Sincerely, 

Matthew D. Lane, Jr.