Sunday, November 16, 2008

Rocket docket

Hello friends. This week I've written a sketch of recent courtroom activities for those of you that are interested in that sort of thing. If the minute details of social security procedure don't rivet you, just skip to the end where you will find a fun picture of the birthday cake made for me as a surprise by my court room hearing monitor (whose other business is cake baking). Otherwise, read on. You have been warned.

Yesterday five of the ten St. Louis Social Security judges conducted what we term a “rocket docket.” The idea was to schedule as many preliminary hearings for unrepresented claimants as possible on one Saturday morning. We would bring them in, advise them of their right to counsel, review their medical evidence briefly and order consultative examinations for those who needed them. Their cases would then be rescheduled in two or three months.

Gary Jewell, our Hearing Office Chief Administrative Law Judge (HOCALJ) is the brains behind our rocket docket. He realized that a significant part of the backlog of cases is created by unrepresented claimants who show up at their first hearing only to announce they now want to hire counsel. By law we must adjourn their case to give them time to find a lawyer. This means we set aside an hour for their hearing, but the hearing only lasts ten minutes. They later get another hour hearing. This may not seem like a big waste of time, but the true waste is behind the scenes. Each ALJ spends at least an hour reviewing medical evidence in preparation for each hearing. When hearings are adjourned or cancelled not only has the judge spent time needlessly preparing but the staff spent hours and hours obtaining medical evidence, preparing the files and sending notices for hearings that never happen.

About 30% of our claimants are unrepresented. An astounding 50% or more of unrepresented claimants simply never show up at their hearings. Of course, we don't know they are not coming, so we soldier on, spending hours preparing for hearings that never happen. The result is that court rooms often sit empty. Courtroom staff sit twiddling their thumbs. We prepare and wait for those who never come. Other claimants who need hearings are delayed while we process claims that never go anywhere. Enter the rocket docket.

Yesterday each of the five rocketeer judges had 20 – 25 unrepresented claimant cases scheduled for the morning from 8:00 – 11:30 at 10 minute intervals. In all 110 cases were scheduled. Since our office completes about 285 cases a month this is a pretty significant docket. Between the time notices went out and yesterday's hearings about 30 of these claimants hired counsel, so we adjourned their cases for a future hearing leaving 80 cases to hear. Of these, only 35 actually showed up so we only averaged 7 hearings apiece. We dismissed the other 45 cases. Of the 7 cases I heard only 1 decided not to hire a lawyer. We gave everybody a handout about how to contact lawyers. We scheduled independent consultative exams for about half of the people we saw. In all a very productive morning, 65 cases moved forward efficiently, 45 dismissed without a lot of wasted effort.

Going in I expected this process to be pretty easy. I imagined I would give a short talk on the right to counsel, glance over the medical records to see who could benefit from an exam, and done. My first case actually followed this pattern. But, as you all know, life has a tendency to be a little more complicated than that. My second hearing involved a claimant who only spoke Arabic. We had no access to a translation service on a Saturday. Fortunately he brought a friend who spoke English to translate. We began. I said a sentence. The friend turned to the claimant and whispered into his ear. “No, say it out loud, so I can hear,” I admonished. Things went pretty well after that until I asked the key question, “So, do you think you want to hire a lawyer?” This provoked an extended conversation in Arabic between the two friends. I stopped them and explained that the conversation had to be between me and the claimant. Many apologies later the claimant decided it would be best to hire a lawyer. Whew.

All the remaining cases were also fairly complicated. I struggled to help these folks understand their rights in Social Security's byzantine system, including a 23 year old woman with developmental disabilities and irritable bowel syndrome and a man with psychosis accompanied by his only somewhat less psychotic brother and sister.

The last case of the day for me involved a 35 year old man. Small and mild mannered he explained that he had hired a lawyer, but that they recently refused to keep representing him. I checked the file and sure enough found a withdrawal from representation. What happened? He didn't know; they didn't tell him. I looked at his records: blind in one eye, deep vein thrombosis in the left leg with chronic pain and anti-coagulant therapy, and HIV+. From the point of view of a claimant's lawyer a pretty good case on the face of it. So why had his lawyers fired him? After a few more questions I discovered that he had returned to work for a few months. Now he was out again. Work had proved too strenuous for him. His only work was as a day care provider. His employer does not know of his diagnosis, and he doesn't want to tell them. In fact, other than his doctor and the Social Security world no one knows of his diagnosis.

I explained his rights. He plans to get a new lawyer. I suggested he get some counseling to help him deal with his situation and directed him to some local HIV/AIDS resources. He thanked me and left.

As I stepped outside into a suddenly blustery day, I could not help but wonder about our so-called social safety net for citizens with disabilities of our county. Are we serving them well? Do we dare call ourselves a civilized country? Just a block down Broadway on the steps of the Old Courthouse where Dred Scott was tried about 300 gay rights activists were demonstrating in the cold.

We're a young and foolish country still, I mused, but the idea of civil rights for all is still warm, deep in our national consciousness. We will grow up some day and grant those rights freely to all. I turned my coat collar up and carried my surprise birthday cake back to my car.

No comments:

Post a Comment