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Old 01-24-2013, 12:52 AM
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Default Rejected Disability Claims in Queens May Be Reheard

from the NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/12/ny...eard.html?_r=0

January 11, 2013
Rejected Disability Claims in Queens May Be Reheard
By MOSI SECRET

Thousands of poor Queens residents with debilitating conditions who were denied federal disability benefits would have their cases reconsidered, under a settlement proposal in a class-action lawsuit that accused judges of bias.

The lawsuit claimed that five administrative law judges with the Queens office that reviews claims for Social Security benefits had presided over hearings that trivialized the applicants’ physical and mental impairments and subjected them to harsh questioning that often brought them to tears. Now, in a settlement accepted by the plaintiffs and the Social Security Administration, the agency has agreed to remove the judges from those cases, allowing applicants — many of whom have been unable to work for years — to appear before new judges. As part of the settlement, the administration would enact new policies against bias and establish a special unit to monitor disability claims for the next 30 months.

“I can’t even breathe telling you how important this is. I’m in tears,” said Toby Marlow, a plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit and the legal guardian of her sister, Judith Blumensohn, who has schizophrenia. “People were in so much trouble. People were very much in pain.”

The Queens office was one of the toughest in the country, according to data cited in the suit, turning away nearly half of all applicants. Its denial rate was more than twice as high as the rate in neighboring Brooklyn, where judges rejected 19 percent of applications. Many of the people denied benefits were immigrants.

The Social Security Administration declined to comment. As part of the settlement, the agency admitted no wrongdoing.

However, one of the judges named in the lawsuit, David Z. Nisnewitz, was replaced as the chief of the Queens review board after the lawsuit was filed. As part of the agreement, he and the other four judges named — Michael D. Cofresi, Seymour Fier, Marilyn P. Hoppenfeld and Hazel C. Strauss — would be retrained.

Administrative law judges are lawyers hired by the federal government, and there are no limits to how long they can serve. Nationally, the Social Security Administration has about 1,500 such judges; 8 work in the Queens office.

Among their responsibilities is hearing appeals from people whose initial applications for Social Security benefits or Supplemental Security Income were denied. To qualify, applicants must be disabled and unable to support themselves. The hearings are closed to the public.

Federal appellate judges reviewing Judge Nisnewitz’s decisions described his courtroom demeanor as “intemperate, brusque and unhelpful,” and a “study in combative questioning, which hampered the truth seeking process” — descriptions similar to ones offered by some applicants whose cases he handled.

“When you go up against a situation like that, you just want to throw in the towel,” said Julia Juan, a plaintiff who appeared three times before Judge Nisnewitz and whose case has been up and down in the courts for four years.

“I’m so glad that other people won’t have to deal with that,” she said.

The Social Security Administration did not provide a precise figure for the number of applicants who would get new hearings. Lawyers with the firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which handled the suit pro bono, and the Urban Justice Center, a nonprofit group, estimated that more than 4,000 cases — applicants who were denied benefits between January 2008 and the date of the settlement — would be reconsidered.

None of the terms of the settlement agreement are final until they are approved by a federal judge.

But it appears the Queens board is already changing its ways. Before the suit, Judges Cofresi and Fier denied over 60 percent of the applications before them; those rates have dropped by more than half. The denial rates of Judge Nisnewitz and Judge Hoppenfeld also declined. Only the rate of Judge Strauss, who denied more than 80 percent of claims before the lawsuit, increased: In the most recent quarter, she denied 90 percent.
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