Proposed rules issued regarding hearings held by administrative appeals judges
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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Proposed rules issued regarding hearings held by administrative appeals judges

By Payroll and Entitlements Editorial Staff

The SSA proposes to revise its rules to clarify when and how administrative appeals judges (AAJ) on the Appeals Council may hold hearings and issue decisions. The Appeals Council already has the authority to hold hearings and issue decisions under existing statute and regulations, but the SSA has not exercised this authority or explained the circumstances under which it would be appropriate for the Appeals Council to assume responsibility for holding a hearing and issuing a decision. The proposed clarifications will ensure the Appeals Council is not limited in the type of claims for which it may hold hearings.

The SSA expects that the proposed rules will increase its adjudicative capacity when needed, allowing it to adjust more quickly to fluctuating short-term workloads, such as when an influx of cases reaches the hearings level. The rules will also provide the SSA with appropriate flexibility, particularly when budgets may not support additional hiring or unanticipated shifts in disability application rates occur. The agency’s ability to utilize its limited resources more effectively will help the SSA quickly optimize its hearings capacity, which in turn will allow it to continue to issue accurate, timely, high-quality decisions. Comments must be received no later than February 18, 2020.

Authority of Appeals Council. The Appeals Council has authority under the SSA’s current regulations to remove a request for hearing that is pending before an ALJ, and thereby assume responsibility for the case and conduct the hearing. The SSA has not exercised this authority, however, nor explained the circumstances under which it would be appropriate for the Appeals Council to assume responsibility for holding a hearing and issuing a decision. Each AAJ possesses the same skills and experience as the skills and experience of the agency’s ALJs. The SSA will not implement these proposed changes in a way that could undermine the independence and integrity of the existing administrative review process. In addition, the SSA takes seriously its responsibility to ensure that claimants receive accurate decisions from impartial decisionmakers, which are arrived at through a fair process that provides each claimant with the full measure of due process protections. Since the beginning of the Social Security administrative review process in 1940, the SSA has held an unwavering commitment to a full and fair hearings process. These proposed rules would not alter the fundamental fairness of the longstanding hearings process. Under these proposed rules, AAJs will continue to possess the same responsibility and independence they have always had to make fair and accurate decisions, free from agency interference.

ALJ v. AAJ decisions comparison. The SSA proposes to clarify that an AAJ from its Appeals Council may hold a hearing and issue a decision on any case pending at the hearings level under Titles II, VIII, or XVI of the Act. Just as ALJs have the authority to hold hearings on a variety of disability and nondisability claims, the agency would not limit the kinds of claims that AAJs could hear. AAJs would be required to follow the same rules as ALJs, and the hearings they hold would apply the same due process protections as hearings held by the SSA’s ALJs. The rules that govern ALJ hearings that AAJs would be required to follow include, but are not limited to, those governing the submission of evidence, the representation of claimants, and the use of video teleconferencing. Claimants would be entitled to request Appeals Council review of any decision with which they are dissatisfied and to seek judicial review of final decisions. In addition, when the Appeals Council removes a case from the hearings level and schedules a hearing, it would mail a notice of hearing at least 75 days before the date of the hearing, just as hearing offices do under the current rules. Further, parties would have the ability to request Appeals Council review of decisions or dismissals issued by AAJs.

To ensure impartiality, the SSA further proposes to preclude an AAJ who conducted a hearing or issued the decision in a case, or dismissed a hearing request, from participating in any action associated with a request for Appeals Council review in that case. If the Appeals Council denies a request for review of a decision, parties would have the ability to seek judicial review in federal district court pursuant to section 205(g) of the Social Security Act. The SSA expects that these revisions will provide it with much-needed flexibility to respond to and mitigate the impact of surges in hearing requests.

For additional information. For further information, contact Nancy Chung, Office of Appellate Operations, Social Security Administration, 5107 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041, (703) 605-7100. See 84 Fed. Reg. 700800, December 20, 2019.

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