Court Approves Historic Settlement in Case Charging Biased Adjudication of Disability Benefits Claims

October 18, 2013

Today, a federal district court granted final approval of a major class-action settlement against the U.S. Social Security Administration.  The underlying lawsuit alleged that five administrative law judges (ALJs) were biased against disability claimants in Queens, and that those judges repeatedly broke the law in denying full and fair hearings.  As a result of the Court’s decision today, more than 4,000 applicants—who were denied benefits by these biased ALJs in the period between January 2008 and the present—are entitled to new hearings before replacement ALJs.  The settlement ends a class action lawsuit brought in 2011 by the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project and pro bono counsel Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

Before approving the settlement, Chief Judge Carol Bagely Amon of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York held hearings to determine the fairness and adequacy of the settlement.  Hundreds of class members attended.  In approving today’s settlement, the Court found that class members overwhelmingly favored the settlement. 

The settlement agreement, approved today, has other important forms of relief.  The biased ALJs had to receive new training, will be mentored by other ALJs, and their conduct will be monitored for 30 months.  If any of their cases are remanded during the monitoring period, the applicant will have an automatic right to a new hearing before a different ALJ.  Moreover, the Social Security Administration adopted a new rule, prohibiting the type of conduct alleged in the class-action lawsuit.

After the case was filed, the Chief Judge David Nisnewitz, one of the five named, was replaced as the hearing office chief ALJ.

”Thousands of disabled workers suffering from financial hardship and declining health will now receive long overdue consideration of their claims,” said Emilia Sicilia, Director of the Disability Advocacy Project at the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project.  These benefits serve as a vital lifeline to those with the most severe disabilities and prevent serious social and family burdens like homelessness, brought on by foreclosures, evictions, and bankruptcies.”

Jim Walden, the partner in charge of Gibson Dunn’s Pro Bono program in New York, said,

“We are gratified that SSA came to understand the problem and worked closely with us in crafting a solution.  That said, we hope the case sends a loud and clear message to all government officials – whether ALJs or others:  people are watching, people demand fairness, and they will go to court if justice is denied.  No one, not even administrative law judges, are above the law.” 

The settlement will take final effect after the time to appeal has run.  Once the settlement is finalized, SSA will notify class members with information about how to request a new hearing.

Ian F. Feldman, Ann Biddle, and Emilia Sicilia are counsel for the Mental Health Project, Urban Justice Center.

Jim Walden, Oliver Olanoff, Adam Jantzi, and Karin Reiss of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher were the primary lawyers handling the litigation, and they were assisted by Tyler Amass, Jana Checa Chong, Sharon Grysman, Daniel Harris, William Moriarty, Kyle Kolb, and Joseph Tillman of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, as well as former associates Matthew Menendez, Kelly Graves and Abraham Shaw of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP.

The case is Padro et al, v. Colvin, and is in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York before the Honorable Carol Bagley Amon and the Honorable Magistrate Judge Roanne L. Mann.