Social Security: Long wait for disability

Imagine what might be your only chance at a steady income, but for some reason, it seems to be taking forever to get it. It is Social Security Disability, and most people who file for disability on their own get turned down.

That means filing an appeal which takes years, but the record shows, appeals for Western New Yorkers take a lot longer than the rest of the country.

Kathy Nobilio is hurting, physically and financially, “I don’t think I’ve made a regular mortgage payment in two years”.

Nobilio says, she hasn’t worked for more than three years, from injuries on the job, and the long wait for her Social Security Disability claim has left her practically destitute, “I have sold whatever I could sell. I have exhausted all my savings”.

With severe back and neck injuries, Nobilio is one of thousands of Western New Yorkers whose initial claims for Social Security Disability are rejected, so she filed an appeal more than two years ago, and checks with the Social Security appeals staff regularly.

When News 4 Investigates interviewed Kathy at her Ransomville home back in September, she said the staff at the Social Security office indicated little had happened with her appeal, “it is just sitting there–nothing has been done”.

Since that interview 5 months ago, her despair has only worsened, “I’m afraid I’m going to lose my house. The bank has been very patient”.

Buffalo attorney Brad Davidzic, who has handled hundreds of Social Security disability appeals, says once a disability claim is denied, the appeal process generally takes years to complete, “right now we tell folks to be ready for about a 12 to 14-month wait for their hearing”.

Brad told us, once a disability claim is denied, the appeal process generally takes years.

Disability appeals are heard by administrative law judges at Social Security’s Buffalo Office of Disability Adjudication and Review at Fountain Plaza, downtown, and after the hearing, a judge can take months to make a decision.

Disability benefits, which are separate from Social Security retirement, provide monthly income for life.

Davidzic says, the long wait does take a toll on disability clients, “they look at you, and say ‘what am I supposed to do for the next 12 to 14 months?’ We don’t have easy answers”.

But News4 Investigates has learned Western New Yorkers wait much longer for answers than claimants in other cities across the country.

The Social Security Administration’s own data list Buffalo at 131 out of 165 offices for average processing time–the bottom fifth. It takes 426 days to get an answer to an appeal in Buffalo, more than a month longer than the national average of 393 days.

Davidzic adds, “we’ve had clients die waiting for their hearing”.

Congressman Chris Collins has opened Congressional Inquiries into the Buffalo office on behalf of 4 desperate claimants in his district, referring to the Buffalo ODAR as, “kind of a ‘black hole’–a bureaucratic black hole”.

In a letter to the regional Chief Administrative Law Judge, in New York City, Collins writes, all 4 of his constituents are critical of the time it is taking one judge in particular, Nancy Pasiecznik, to decide the constituents’ appeals.

We found, Judge Pasiecznik disposed of 108 disability cases, last year. That is less than one third of the average of 350 cases disposed by all judges in the Buffalo office, and is in sharp contrast to the judge with the highest number of disposed cases, which is 507.

Collins says his 4 constituents are also feeling short-changed, “they filed all the paperwork. They have sent this into the administrative judge that is supposed to rule in a timely fashion, and this is anything but a timely fashion”.

We have reached out to Judge Pasiecznik and other Buffalo officials, and were directed to the Social Security regional office in New York, which declined to comment.

One administrative law judge in the Buffalo office who did consent to an interview was Judge Marilyn Zahm, who says these judges have a tough job, “administrative law judges are unlike any other judges in the United States”.

Zahm actually carries the smallest case load in the Buffalo office, with 64 dispositions, but Judge Zahm says it is due to her duties as the national vice president of the judges’ union.

While Zahm is not allowed to discuss individual judges or cases, she believes Buffalo’s adjudication office is clogged with appeals that are more about desperation than disabilities, because of the local economy, “a lot of people are out of work, a lot of people can’t get jobs, claims increase–people file for disability. They need an income”.

That seems to be validated by Buffalo’s caseload, which has nearly tripled in the last three years.

Jeff Angelo of Hamburg has been waiting since he filed his claim more than 4 years ago.

After extensive back surgery, Angelo filed his disability claim a second time, desperately hoping the new claim might get him an answer sooner, “both claims would run simultaneously, and first decision wins”.

But Social Security officials eventually discovered Angelo’s second claim and disqualified it.

To learn more about your Social Security benefits, click here.

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