What Makes Good Social Security Judges?

I recently wrote about why some Social Security administrative law judges (ALJ’s) deny so many more people for disability benefits than other judges (“Why Do Some Social Security Administrative Law Judges Deny So Many More People than Others?”).  Public records show widely varying approval rates here.  In this blog, I will write about what attributes make good Social Security judges.


Hearings are at the third step of the Social Security disability appeals process.  Expect a denial when applying for Social Security Disability or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits at the application and reconsideration levels.  At the next level, your Social Security benefits hearing, you speak with a judge either in person or by video about what medical problems keep you from working full-time.


ALJ’s approval rates at these Social Security hearings vary widely with the same kinds of cases.  In my prior blog, I wrote a few reasons why some ALJ’s deny so many more people.  These ALJ’s can:


  1. Misunderstand (purposely or out of inexperience) objective medical evidence.
  2. Discount the true impact of pain on functioning (lacking objective empathy).
  3. Want a reputation that they deny claims (personal motivations that are not objective).
  4. Overprotect the system, denying valid claims (while rooting out “fraud”) in the process.


On the other side of the coin, some attributes—in my experience—are common to good ALJ’s.  They are below.


Good ALJ’s investigate facts.  Law school teaches law students how to think critically.  We are taught to sift through facts and select those necessary to resolve legal issues.  Intelligent problem solving, however, requires investigating ALL facts rather than jumping to conclusions.  Social Security claims involve sifting through medical facts in medical records—something NOT taught in law school.  Good ALJ’s take time to look at ALL medical facts and weigh them in light of the medical evidence.  Good ALJ’s research what they do not understand.  The result?  Good ALJ’s have a better understanding of medical evidence.  Better hearing decisions come from a deeper understanding of the evidence.


Good ALJ’s have open minds.  Open minds allow good ALJ’s at hearings to actively listen at disability hearings.  Hearing testimony gives a personal perspective to medical conditions.  ALJ’s with closed minds, however, make hearings irrelevant and unproductive.  Rather than listening to other points of view, closed minds prejudge select facts—blocking a full perspective on the medical evidence.  For example, I know of a case in which a woman’s medical record included a comment from a treating doctor along these lines:  “Patient is a homemaker for her children.”  This ALJ decided this comment meant that the woman “chose” to stay home and was not disabled.  This simplified inductive reasoning prejudged her claim for disability.  I have known other ALJ’s who consider the hearing irrelevant because they read the medical records.  You cannot know a person from paper.  Such is the thought process of a closed mind.  Good ALJ’s, though, know that a full perspective on other people’s life experiences is key to judging well, quite like surveilling unfamiliar land is key to good map making.  By “surrounding” the evidence, good judges can map out a person’s medical conditions more truly and accurately.  Better hearing decisions come from a broader perspective on the evidence.


Good ALJ’s have patience.  People are different.  Medical conditions are unique.  Everyone describes medical problems differently.  Good judges know this, and listen.  They recognize that hearing rooms are not assembly lines of people to “get through.”  Good judges also recognize that people are vulnerable.  Hearing rooms are not courtrooms.  They are “non-adversarial.”  In my experience, impatient judges tend to upset clients at hearings.  This is unnecessary and reflects an inability on some level to empathize.  People with anxiety, for example, tend to get upset easily.  It is easy to upset a person under the stress of a Social Security hearing when you know their vulnerabilities.  You have their medical records!  Good judges, on the other hand, are patient and respectful at hearings.  Respectful discussion at hearings is productive, and leads to more informed hearing decisions.


Choosing good Social Security ALJ’s is a matter of gauging social IQ.  Grades are a poor indicator of the ability to relate to people.  Being a good tax lawyer, for example, has absolutely no bearing on being a good Social Security ALJ.


Advice for SSA:


  1. When reviewing existing ALJ’s, listen to hearing audio. Contentious ALJ’s have patterns of raising voices and disrespectfully cutting off answers.  Such behavior is entirely unnecessary.


  1. When hiring ALJ’s, hire smart attorneys who can demonstrate REAL LIFE client experience. Lawyers in government back rooms are not the ideal showcases for talent interacting with people.  Good ALJ’s have been on the front line in life, and can relate to other peoples’ reality.  The right people doing a job well leads to less burnout.  Good Social Security judges can relate to people fairly and respectfully.  Good ALJ’s, in my experience, help the Social Security Disability program immeasurably.

Written by Andrew Kinney

Andrew Kinney is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and Marquette Law School. He is in his 25th year of practice in Social Security Disability law. He speaks nationally on Social Security Disability practice, founded the Minnesota State Bar "Social Security Disability Section," and is an editor of the Social Security Pratice Guide, a five-volume legal guide published by LexisNexis.

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