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Social Security Disability: Process Needed to Review Productivity Expectations for Administrative Law Judges

GAO-21-341 Published: Jun 17, 2021. Publicly Released: Jun 17, 2021.
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Fast Facts

If people disagree with how their Social Security disability benefits claims were decided, they can request a hearing from an administrative law judge. These judges adjudicate hundreds of thousands of cases each year.

In 2007, the Social Security Administration set expectations for their judges to issue between 500-700 decisions or dismissals each year. This expectation has remained the same despite changes that affected judges' workloads, such as the increased size of case files. The pandemic also disrupted judges' work, making it harder to meet expectations.

We recommended creating a process to review expectations for judges' productivity.

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What GAO Found

The Social Security Administration's (SSA) administrative law judges review, process, and adjudicate requests for hearings on disability benefits. In 2007, the agency set an expectation—which SSA reported was based on trend data and some regional managers' input—for judges to issue 500-700 dispositions (decisions and dismissals) each year, and the extent to which they have met this expectation has varied over time. SSA did not document the expectation-setting process in 2007, nor has it formally reviewed the expectation since. Judges in discussion groups held by GAO questioned the basis of the expectation and 87 percent of judges GAO surveyed (47 of 54) said the expectation was too high. The extent to which judges met the annual and related expectations has fluctuated over the years (see figure). Without periodic reviews, SSA cannot be assured that its expectations appropriately allow judges to balance productivity with other expectations, such as quality, given changing conditions over time.

Administrative Law Judges Who Met or Exceeded SSA's Annual Productivity Expectation, Fiscal Years 2014-2020

Administrative Law Judges Who Met or Exceeded SSA's Annual Productivity Expectation, Fiscal Years 2014-2020

Judges in selected hearing offices cited a variety of factors affecting their ability to meet the annual expectation. The top factor cited by judges GAO surveyed was the size of case files, which have increased five-fold on average since the expectation was established, according to SSA data. The COVID-19 pandemic introduced other factors in 2020, resulting in fewer hearings being conducted.

SSA monitors judges' productivity and takes various actions when expectations are not met, ranging from informal conversations to formal discipline. In addition, judges in 11 of 13 discussion groups viewed telework restrictions as a consequence for not meeting expectations. Additionally, judges GAO surveyed reported feeling pressured to meet the expectations. For instance, 87 percent of judges surveyed (47 of 54) said that SSA placed too much emphasis on productivity, and some expressed concerns about their work quality and work-life balance. SSA officials said they do not formally seek feedback from judges on the expectations. However, without feedback or other gauges of pressure, SSA lacks information that could help it appropriately balance timely case processing while maintaining high-quality work and employee morale.

Why GAO Did This Study

SSA's approximately 1,350 judges play a major role in processing and adjudicating requests for hearings to help ensure individuals who do not agree with the determination on their claim for Social Security disability benefits receive due process. SSA receives hundreds of thousands of hearing requests each year and has historically had a large backlog. GAO was asked to review SSA's productivity expectations for its judges.

This report examines (1) how SSA set productivity expectations for judges and the extent to which judges have met them over time, (2) reported factors affecting the ability of judges in selected offices to meet the annual productivity expectation, and (3) SSA's management of judges' productivity. GAO obtained and analyzed SSA data on judges' productivity from fiscal years 2005-2020; surveyed and held 13 virtual discussion groups with judges in six hearing offices selected for geographic location, average productivity, and average case size; reviewed relevant federal laws and agency policies and documents; and interviewed officials from SSA and the association representing judges.


GAO is making two recommendations, including that SSA establish and implement a process for periodically reviewing productivity expectations for judges and determine whether the expectations are reasonable. SSA generally agreed with both recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Social Security Administration The Commissioner of SSA should develop and implement a process for periodically reviewing the annual productivity expectation, and the supporting expectations as needed, and document those processes so that the bases of the expectations are clear and can be communicated to judges. This process should be informed by reviewing ALJ productivity data, considering any recent changes in policies and procedures, seeking input from ALJs and relevant stakeholders, and assessing the impact of any changes on the backlog of requests for hearings. (Recommendation 1)
As of January 2024, SSA officials essentially disagreed with the premise of our recommendation, and did not have plans to implement actions that directly address it. According to officials, the annual productivity expectation for ALJs of 500-700 dispositions per year is reasonable, as is the supporting expectation for ALJs to be available for 50 hearings per month. SSA officials noted that most ALJs have not met the annual expectation in the last several years, as the workload has been too low for the agency to schedule enough hearings for them, and, accordingly, ALJs are not held accountable for meeting it. However, SSA officials stated that the 500-700 disposition goal could be relevant in the future if appeals and hearings workload increased. SSA officials maintained that, while the expectation was not originally based on formal analysis, it was reasonable and did not need to be reassessed. Moreover, SSA officials said that while the ALJ union provides them with input on workload concerns, expectations, and productivity, SSA has no obligation to discuss expectations or seek feedback regarding expectations with employees. As stated in our report, high performing organizations regularly reassess their performance management systems, and the active involvement of employees is a key practice that agencies should consider. Accordingly, we continue to believe that SSA should take actions to implement this recommendation. Specifically, SSA should document the analytical basis for its annual dispositions expectation, establish and document a process for periodically reviewing it, and communicate this information to ALJs and stakeholders.
Social Security Administration The Commissioner of SSA should take steps to determine whether the current productivity expectations for ALJs are reasonable, such as by seeking formal feedback from ALJs, and examining any other factors affecting the ability of ALJs to maintain a work-life balance and ensure quality decisions on requests for hearings. (Recommendation 2)
Closed – Implemented
SSA took steps to address issues related to the reasonableness of ALJ productivity expectations, including effectively eliminating telework restrictions as a consequence of not meeting expectations. Specifically, the new collective bargaining agreement (effective October 2022) removed a provision requiring ALJs to schedule a certain number of cases as a condition of telework. The agency also stopped using cure letters to address noncompliance with that provision. In our report, judges we spoke with viewed telework restrictions as the main consequence of not meeting productivity expectations and such restrictions affected their views on the reasonableness of the expectations. The new collective bargaining agreement also gives ALJs the ability to vary the number of hours worked each day and week and expands their telework flexibilities, among other things. Additionally, an April 2022 memorandum of understanding (MOU) between SSA and the ALJ union established guidelines that limit certain types of cases that can be scheduled for hearing without the ALJ's approval. For instance, the MOU limits the number of potentially more complex cases that can be scheduled for a judge in a single day, such as those with very large case files. We had reported that judges we spoke with considered the size of case files as a key factor that affected their ability to meet productivity expectations.

Full Report

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