Few of the petitioners who appear before Administrative Law Judge Manny Smith hear the word “no.”
Smith grants benefits in close to 80 percent of the Social Security disability claims he hears, nearly twice as often as other administrative judges in Western Pennsylvania and much higher than the national average of 58 percent, federal data show.
Analysts estimate each of the 292 disability awards Smith approved from October through June will cost taxpayers about $300,000 over the long term. As disability applications hit highs and a Social Security trust fund approaches exhaustion, judicial outliers such as Smith have fallen under congressional scrutiny.
“If we don’t do something, in four years it won’t be able to pay full benefits,” said Sarah Swinehart, a spokeswoman for the House Ways and Means Committee. Its Social Security Subcommittee has held five hearings on disability insurance over the past year.
Smith, one of 10 local administrative law judges, declined an interview with the Tribune-Review. Federal rules keep most active law judges from talking with reporters, and disability appeal hearings are closed to the public.
“The whole procedure may have made sense 20 years ago, when most people were honest and didn’t know about” the disability program, said James Bukes of Mt. Lebanon, who retired in January after two decades as an administrative law judge. “But now it’s become such a big business.”
Judges are under heavy pressure to resolve claims, and it’s fastest for them to approve an appeal and move on, Bukes said. However, “no structure has been put into effect to penalize people who are granting too many.”