By Jessica Dye
NEW YORK, Jan 11 (Reuters) - Thousands of individuals could
receive new hearings on their disability benefit claims as part
of a proposed settlement addressing allegations of hostility and
bias against five federal administrative law judges in Queens,
The proposed class action settlement, filed Friday in
Brooklyn federal court, aims to resolve a 2011 lawsuit accusing
the five administrative law judges, or ALJs, of failing to give
fair hearings to disabled individuals who appeared before them.
The settlement must be approved by Chief U.S. District Judge
The complaint was brought against the commissioner of the
Social Security Administration, Michael Astrue, by eight
disabled individuals whose disability benefit claims were
rejected by one of five ALJs -- David Nisnewitz, Marilyn
Hoppenfeld, Seymour Fier, Michael Cofresi and Hazel Strauss.
They work in the Queens Office of Disability Adjudication and
Review, which is part of the Social Security Administration.
The complaint said that the ALJs created a "brick wall of
bias" and accused them of systematically ignoring medical
evidence, failing to adhere to legal standards and depriving
claimants of fair hearings.
A spokesman for the New York Social Security Administration
referred a request for comment to the U.S. Attorney's office for
the Eastern District of New York. A spokesman for that office
declined to comment. The U.S. attorney's office represented the
Social Security commissioner in the case.
An attorney representing the plaintiffs, Jim Walden of
Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, said the settlement "provides meaningful
relief, reform and monitoring to rectify years of disgraceful
conduct by these ALJs in Queens."
"Thousands of the most vulnerable New Yorkers will be the
better for it," Walden said. "We are grateful that the Social
Security Administration decided to embrace relief and reform
rather than digging in its heels."
The Queens office has one of the highest denial rates in the
country, nearly 49 percent between 2005 and 2009, compared with
19 percent in neighboring Brooklyn, plaintiffs said, citing data
from the Social Security Administration.
The plaintiffs sought class status on behalf of all
individuals whose claims were fully or partially rejected by one
of the ALJs. The original complaint sought either an order
barring the named ALJs from presiding over future disability
benefit hearings or, in the alternative, new hearings for all
affected claimants before different ALJs and a system for
keeping tabs on the ALJs to ensure they provided fair hearings
in the future.
While the proposed settlement would allow the ALJs to keep
their jobs, an estimated 4,000 individuals whose benefit claims
were fully or partially rejected by one of the five named ALJs
since 2008 would be entitled to new hearings before different
ALJs in Queens, according to settlement papers.
The named ALJs would be recertified and retrained by the
Social Security Administration, and their decisions would be
monitored for any signs of misconduct or legal error.
If a case decided by a named ALJ is remanded during a
30-month monitoring period, the individual whose case was
remanded would be automatically entitled to a new hearing before
a different ALJ.
Social Security would also be responsible for implementing
and enforcing a new policy to address anti-claimant bias.
The case is Padro v. Astrue, U.S. District Court for the
Eastern District of New York, no. 11-1788.
For the plaintiffs: Jim Walden of Gibson Crutcher & Dunn and
Emilia Sicilia and Ian Feldman of the Urban Justice Center.
For Social Security: Carlotta Wells of the U.S. Department
of Justice, Civil Division, and Gail Matthews of the U.S.
Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York.
Follow us on Twitter @ReutersLegal | Like us on Facebook