It's getting harder to get an application for disability benefits approved at the hearing level. I do not like having to say that, but I fear it is true. The early FY 2012 stats already show a decline for several ALJs at my local hearing offices. I expect in a few months, when we see updated nationwide ALJ allowance/denial statistics, the stats will confirm an overall reduction in the percentage of claims allowed at the hearing level.
As a Social Security disability lawyer and a legal blogger, I talk with many people involved in the disability hearing process. Other disability practitioners confirm my own experience: ALJs are pulling back a bit. They are being pressured in the current political environment to allow fewer disability claims.
It is hard to quantify the pull back, based upon anecdotal evidence. I estimate it is something like 10% of claims. Judges who had grant rates of 80% are becoming 70% judges. Judges who were at 70% are at 60%. That may not seems like very much, but if you are one of that 10%, it means the difference between receiving disability benefits or not receiving them. And for disability lawyers, a 10% downward swing makes a huge difference in the bottom line.
Furthermore, the low-granting ALJs are, if anything, emboldened by the current environment. The Appeals Council and U.S. District Court review are more important than ever.
Poorly documented claims fare the worst. It is easy to turn down a claim where the disability claimant has not had recent medical treatment, and there is no opinion from a doctor regarding functional limitations. While that may sound reasonable, remember that many people lose medical coverage when they are unable to work, and cannot afford to pay for ongoing medical treatment. You can't close the door to disability benefits for these people.
This challenging environment is likely to continue through 2012, at least. A disability applicant needs every advantage in the current environment. You have to make sure that your claim is one of the 60% that are granted at the ALJ level (according to nationwide statistics) rather than the 40% that are not. It is more important than ever to have legal representation for your disability claim.