Sunday, September 14, 2008


My “training” period came to an end at last after 7 hard weeks of not sleeping in my own bed. This last week our furniture arrived and I started hearing cases.

Let me set the stage. The Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR) in St. Louis is located downtown in a modern office tower called St. Louis Place (picture attached). It occupies three quarters of the ninth floor. The office is roughly shaped like a “U” with a waiting room and elevators in the center. There are ten judges organized into two work groups with five judge's offices located on either long end of the U. There are about 45 support staff including ten decision writers (all lawyers) and 10 clerks called Senior Case Technicians (SCTs), one assigned to each judge. Tara Achembo is my SCT. She is essentially my paralegal helping get cases ready for hearing and following up afterwards. The rest of the staff is general clerical workers and managers.

Along the long flat side of the “U” adjacent to the waiting room is a row of five identical courtrooms. Claimants, their lawyers and any witnesses enter the courtrooms through locked doors from the waiting room. Judges enter from the inner office through a wooden door with a peephole that allows a fish-eye view inside. The judge's courtroom doors are unlocked from the office side but cannot be opened from inside the courtroom unless you have an electronic key.

The courtrooms each have the judge's bench on a raised platform at one end with a large desk, a computer hooked up to the SSA mainframe and a seat for a hearing reporter and their computer. In front of the bench is a large table with a seat for a vocational expert witness (VE) and seats for the claimant and their representative. Since 90% of our files are fully electronic, the attorney's seat and the VE's seat are equipped with computers, and they often also bring their own laptops. Each seat has a microphone to allow for electronic recording of the testimony.

On Monday I put on my new Judge's robe for the first time and headed for courtroom #2 a few minutes before 1:00, the time for my first hearing. I opened the door and was surprised to find the morning hearings had not yet ended. I apologized for the interruption then went to find my group leader to figure out what to do. I was quickly assigned a different courtroom and a different court reporter, but we couldn't get the computers to work. Finally, a half-hour later I was on my way. The confusing start took my mind off being nervous. I looked out at the claimant and his lawyer, introduced myself and started my questioning. I had perhaps over-prepared for a routine hearing but I wanted to really know the case. After about 15 minutes I knew what my decision would be. It was not this claimant's lucky day. His lawyer knew it was not going well. I gave the lawyer, who was very well prepared and comfortable, plenty of time to question his client, then granted his request for more time to try to get key evidence. They thanked me and left. The first hearing was over. It was 2:15. Not bad.

The next case involved a very mentally disturbed very young man. After he testified his mother testified and told me that virtually everything the claimant told me was a delusion. The file was devoid of adequate evidence. The claimant could not afford medical care so this time I ordered the client to get psychological testing paid for by Social Security. Another hour gone. The last claimant failed to show up. I dismissed his case. I walked out of the courtroom at 3:30, half an hour ahead of schedule. I felt great.

It's been pretty much like that every day since. After the hearings I issue orders for further development of cases and write decisions (actually I mostly write instructions to decision writers who draft decisions for me). Before the hearings I read files and make notes to prepare and occasionally decide a case without having to hold a hearing. I expect to decide at least 12 cases a week, or about 600 per year.

The work is inherently interesting and it suits me. I have a fair amount of compassion for claimants, but I've seen enough to not be a fool. I know what claimant's representatives go through and how they think. What's so different about judging is the realization that I'm the one who decides what will happen next for these folks. They need to move forward, and until I decide their life is on hold. Win or lose, after I decide, their story continues.

No comments:

Post a Comment