When you receive a written decision from a Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ), in almost all cases the decision is drafted by hearing office staff using the Findings Integrated Template (FIT). The template allows the person drafting the decision to input information regarding the claim and the judge’s determination, and the template spits out a completed written decision, which is then reviewed and signed by the judge. The result is a written decision that is mostly boilerplate language.
The FIT template has bothered me for a long time, because parts of the actual written decision produced by the template are simply untrue. The decision states that the judge considered numerous specific issues, and it is highly unlikely that the ALJ actually made all of the findings that are described in the boilerplate language contained in the decision. Often there is little or no relationship between the language of the written decision and the actual facts of a particular claim. If you look at 10 (or 20, or 100) written decisions, you will see the exact same language over and over again. It is disturbing.
Disability claimants who receive an unfavorable ALJ decision are often surprised by the language in the decision, which typically questions the claimant’s credibility. However, it is all part of the boilerplate language contained in the template.
Social Security ALJs are tasked with deciding 500-700 claims per year. That is a huge workload, and the Findings Integrated Template helps to get that many decisions out the door. But at what price? In my view, a disability claimant who is denied benefits (for which he or she has paid a mandatory premium through FICA taxes withheld from wages) deserves better.
My scepticism of the boilerplate language in the FIT appears to be shared by Judge Richard Posner, the acclaimed 7th Circuit Court of Appeals judge. Nonlawyers may not have heard of Judge Posner, but everyone who has been to law school knows who he is. His well-written decisions were in my law books 25 years ago, and his opinions are routinely referenced today. I think he is the most well known federal judge in the United States who is not on the Supreme Court.
Judge Posner has a problem with the FIT. His recent opinion in Bjornson v. Astrue (link opens pdf of the decision) addressed the issue. Judge Posner wrote:
Reading the administrative law judge’s opinion, we first stubbed our toe on a piece of opaque boilerplate near the beginning, where, after reciting Bjornson’s descriptionof her medical condition, the opinion states: “After careful consideration of the evidence, the undersigned [administrative law judge] finds that the claimant’s medically determinable impairments would reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms; however, the claimant’s statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not credible to the extent they are inconsistentwith the above residual functional capacity assessment.” The government’s brief describes this passage as a “template,” by which it means a passage drafted bythe Social Security Administration for insertion into any administrative law judge’s opinion to which it pertains.
This “template” is a variant of one that this court (and not only this court) had criticized previously—that “after considering the evidence of record, the undersigned finds that claimant’s medically determinable impairments would reasonably be expected to producethe alleged symptoms, but that the claimant’s statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible.” In Parker v. Astrue, 597 F.3d 920, 922 (7th Cir. 2010), we called this “meaningless boilerplate. The statement by a trier of fact that a witness’s testimony is ‘not entirely credible’ yields no clue to what weight the trier of fact gave the testimony” (emphasis in original); see also Punzio v. Astrue, 630 F.3d 704, 709 (7th Cir. 2011); Martinez v. Astrue, 630 F.3d 693, 696-97 (7th Cir. 2011); Spiva v. Astrue, 628 F.3d 346, 348 (7th Cir. 2010). “Such boilerplate language fails to inform us in a meaningful, reviewable way of the specific evidence the ALJ consideredin determining that claimant’s complaints were not credible. More troubling, it appears that the Commissioner has repeatedly been using this same boilerplate paragraph to reject the testimony of numerous claimants, without linking the conclusory statements contained therein to evidence in the record or even tailoring the paragraph to the facts at hand, almost without regard to whether the boilerplate paragraph has any relevance to the case.” Hardman v. Barnhart, 362 F.3d 676, 679 (10th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted)[bold emphasis supplied by the blog author].
Well that pretty much sums it up.
I admire Judge Posner for writing this opinion. In my view, he is exposing a very poor practice.
The boilerplate language in the template should not be sufficient to deny a Social Security disability claim and comply with the Commissioner’s regulations about the manner in which evidence must be considered by administrative law judges. However, the Social Security Appeals Council and many federal district courts have looked the other way, and treated the FIT boilerplate language as bona fide findings by the ALJ.
Judge Posner has now called BS on that practice, and he is quite right to do so.
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