War on Judges
Despite the fact that the agency’s own Inspector General found that the decrease in staffing levels, the increasingly large case files, the drop in decisions granting benefits, and the increase in procedural requirements, has led to ALJs’ reduced ability to issue decisions, management has ignored reality with regard to scheduling and adjudicating cases. Judges are being bullied and threatened to schedule 50 hearings a month, and, at the same time, management is enforcing a 30 day in status rule.
AALJ has arbitrations scheduled over the next few months to attack these unreasonable quotas.
Perhaps the agency wishes us to ignore our oath of office and their own rules and regulations to ethically and carefully adjudicate each case. Claimants who appear before us are in distress, many not having any income at all for years; should their cases be given short-shrift? And, each case will cost the trust fund $300,000 over the lifetime of the claimant. Should we not be careful in determining eligibility?
Management has offered several solutions for speeding up adjudication; I have heard managers promote the following:
- Don’t read all of the file; read only the new exhibits, summaries and medical source statements (I wonder – how will I know if the medical source statement is based on objective laboratory and test results and clinical signs if I don’t read the treatment notes? Also, if most of the information in a file need not be read, why doesn’t the agency simply remove it from the record? Just asking …)
- Cut down on the amount of time holding a hearing (Isn’t this the claimant’s opportunity to have a judge listen to him/her? Will the AC remand the case if I cut off the claimant or representative? If agency policy is to have a VE at every adult disability hearing, won’t that mean that the hearing will be longer?)
- Don’t read the draft decision. Just check the result and the RFC (Of course, this flies in the face of HALLEX, which requires us not only to read the draft, but also to verify the exhibit citations in the draft; if something ends up in the decision that the agency doesn’t like, however, it will be the judge who will be disciplined – I have seen a number of such cases; or, if information is missing from the decision or evidence poorly analyzed, the case will be remanded and the judge will take a hit on his/her agree rate.)
Interestingly, management never puts any of their suggestions on how to speed up the process or cut corners in writing. I wonder why.
I should also mention that, in an arbitration, managers testified that the 50 quota applies to every judge because it takes the same amount of time to read a large case file as a small one. This is the logic of those charged with overseeing decisions involving billions of dollars.
After more than a year of pressing the agency to make changes to create a more efficient adjudicatory system, management has finally adopted two of AALJ’s proposals:
- Streamlined Fully Favorable Proposal – which they have renamed Updated Fully Favorable
- Expedited dismissal procedure – which they have also renamed as the pre-hearing development contact pilot.
We were advised today that the new Fully Favorable template will be piloting in a few weeks and will roll out to the field sometime between June and the fourth quarter of FY18.
Over the past year, AALJ has developed a number of recommendations for making the system more efficient so that we could deliver desperately needed services. We have had to go to Congress to get our message across.
One of the reasons why we developed reform proposals was to alleviate the pressure on judges to hear and decide more and more cases. We expected that the agency, having adopted our proposals, would stop their draconian actions to force judges to hear more cases than they could reasonably and ethically adjudicate. Most of us are beyond the breaking point. Despite giving the agency our proposals for saving time and resources so as to reduce the backlog – and having the agency adopt two of them to date – management has actually ramped up their pressure and threats.
If you get a directive that you cannot comply with, please see your Regional Vice President to have a grievance filed.
My thanks go to Linda Stagno, Executive Vice President, and Marty Pillion, Region 3 Vice President, for working on these initiatives.
We have arbitrations on telework and reprimands scheduled for hearings beginning in a couple of weeks and proceeding over the next several months. Rita Eppler, National Grievance Chair, Janet McEneaney, Deputy Grievance Chair, and Bill Ramsey, Region 1 Vice President, are representing AALJ in the telework arbitration in New Haven, which begins on March 25th.
Last week, AALJ representatives met with Deputy Chief Judge Chris Dillon and asked him to provide judges with information on who appointed them. This would have to be done on a class by class basis. Judge Dillon agreed to ask the agency to provide us with the information.
AALJ will be filing our brief by April 2nd; I will post it on the website for everyone to view.
I would like to thank Region 5 VP Bill Wenzel, who has been shepherding this project for the last couple of months, as well as Rita Eppler, Grievance Chair, and Linda Stagno, Executive Vice President, for assisting him.
Region 9 Vice President Mike Blume will also be establishing an area on our website where Lucia information (such as other amicus briefs) will be posted.
Horror stories abound as to how long it is taking to complete all of the information on the questionnaire – 6 hours and counting, for some. And that is just the beginning; the judge may have to be fingerprinted, may well have to be interviewed, and may have difficulties with compliance should something untoward be found. All of this takes time. The agency has begun the process with a few Judges; management has not advised us of their roll out plan, asserting that it is not yet finalized.
The AALJ asked for impact and implementation bargaining – there are many serious impact issues, including the time spent on completing the background investigation process (this affects time for adjudication of cases), extensions of time to obtain the requested information, and appeal within OPM or the agency.
The agency has refused to negotiate impact and implementation. Mark Brown, Region 7 Vice President, will be filing an Unfair Labor Practice on our behalf.
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We need to laugh at some of this nonsense. I’ve set out below an email from one of our colleagues.
NOTES FROM THE ACE UNDERGROUND
During a hearing conducted by our HOCALJ, the ACE hearing monitor blurted out: “Hey judge, you are pretty good at this. Maybe you should teach me how to type.”
Same hearing: the ACE hearing monitor: “Stop talking. I cannot keep up.”
Despite the humor, It is disheartening to see the largest adjudicatory system in the nation so demeaned.