Disability benefits denials under fire in New York

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A graphic depiction of the outline of the shape of New York fill with portions of New York State flag.The Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project filed a class action lawsuit against the Social Security Administration on April 12, charging that a court in Queens that hears appeals of Social Security disability cases imposes a “brick wall of bias” and discriminates against people with disabilities.

The rejection rate by the eight-member Queens Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, whose lawyers are federally appointed, is the 10th highest among 166 offices nationwide this fiscal year, according to an analysis from The New York Times. From 2005 to 2008, the court had a rejection rate of 50.9 percent, compared to 37 percent in Manhattan, 33 percent in the Bronx and 14.5 percent in Brooklyn. The nationwide average was 36 percent.

“Five members of the QODAR have demonstrated persistent and flagrant bias against benefits claimants as demonstrated conclusively by their persistent and internal legal and procedural errors, as well as unprofessional behavior and disregard of court-imposed rules,” according to the complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

As a result, the complaint alleges that the court violates the individual’s due process rights, in violation of the Social Security Act, the Administrative Procedure Act and the Fifth Amendment. It calls for a permanent injunction against the five judges from hearing future Social Security disability benefits cases and a rehearing of the eight cases involving the plaintiffs listed in the complaint.

In previous instances where it has reviewed rulings from the QODAR, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District Court of New York has used phrases to describe the court’s conduct as “particularly egregious,” using rational that was “plucked from thin air” and containing “serious negligence and could possibly even suggest bias.”

“We hope this lawsuit will bring an end to the well-known and flagrant bias our clients face every day,” said Eve Stotland, director of the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project, in a news release “These (administrative law judges)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 Social Security disability program, which has recently received criticism for being overly generous amid the nation’s budget crisis, paid $172 billion last year in disability benefits, according to the New York Times.