Inconsistency and Angst in District Court Resolution of Social Security Disability Appeals
46 Pages Posted: 26 Nov 2014 Last revised: 10 Dec 2014
Date Written: November 24, 2014
This study of federal court decisionmaking sheds new insight on the links among judicial outcomes, judicial ideology and demographic factors. We ask whether characteristics of a jurist other than ideology, including age, race, gender and work experience, can affect results in the context of the nation’s most frequently litigated administrative law dispute – social security disability claims.
Over ten thousand social security disability cases are resolved each year in the federal court system. As a consequence, almost every district court judge and magistrate decides a significant number of such appeals from claimants each year. Social security cases by and large are similar, turning most frequently on claims of mental illness and muscular skeletal pain. There is ample room for discretion among ALJs and federal judges in determining whether or not an applicant is entitled to benefits when the claim turns on the amount of pain or on the presence of debilitating mental illness. Thus, this is the first study to assess and compare the decisionmaking of virtually all district court judges (and magistrates) resolving nearly identical challenges.
The results are remarkable both in what they showed and did not show. We reach three principal conclusions. First, decisionmaking patterns among district court judges and magistrates both reveal the same kind of inconsistencies that plague ALJ adjudication more generally. Inspector General reports and testimony before Congress have focused on the variance in ALJ grant rates as reasons to reform the SSA adjudication system. Thus, while ALJs have been attacked repeatedly for such inconsistencies, district court decisionmaking fares little better. The results of an SSDI appeal may turn more on the hap of which judge or magistrate is slated to review the appeal more than on the merits of the case.
Second, if the cases are similar, the question arises as to what explains the difference in outcomes. Again, the results are striking in that the different outcomes cannot be explained by the sociological factors that others have investigated. No correlation can be drawn between results and the race, gender, seniority, and prior job experience of the jurist. Nor can they be explained by geography or the percentage of disabled within the region. And, there was only a modest correlation between judicial ideology as measured by the politics of the appointing judge and the judicial decision – conservative judges tended to uphold more appeals. In other words, sociological factors evidently played far less of a role in deciding SSDI and SSI cases that one would have expected.
Third, although the sociological attributes did not explain much of the variation in resolution of the cases, we noted a substantial correlation between remand rates and the circuit in which the judges and magistrates sat. Remand rates from both judges and magistrates in the Tenth, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits, for instance, were almost double those from judges and magistrates in the First and Fourth Circuits. To be sure, we cannot discount the possibility that personal beliefs – not captured in the attributes we tested for – play a significant role in district court and magistrate decisionmaking. Nonetheless, the statistics strongly suggest that the doctrine or “culture’ within a particular judicial circuit makes a substantial difference in such decisionmaking.
Keywords: judicial impartiality, judges, ALJ, judicial outcomes, decision-making, judicial attributes, demographics, resolution, district courts, federal courts, ideology, social security disability claims
JEL Classification: K19, K39, K40, K49
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation