BUFFALO, N.Y.(WIVB) – Desperate calls from Social Security Disability claimants to Call 4 Action about lengthy waits for decisions led to an examination, starting in 2013, of the Buffalo office where disability appeals are heard.
It is called the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR), and it is where Social Security Disability claimants go after their initial disability claims are denied to have their case heard by an administrative law judge (ALJ).
At the time of the Call 4 Action investigation the Buffalo ODAR ranked near the bottom on a national scale, in several categories.
Kathy Nobilio, of Porter, was an example: her appeal had taken more than two years, and her bills were piling up, including a past due mortgage and late utility payments.
“I have sold whatever I could sell. I have exhausted all my savings,” Kathy told News 4 in frustration.
Nobilio’s case drew angry letters from a Congressman and a U.S. Senator, and it was assigned to a different ALJ. About 7 months later, Nobilio got a ruling in her favor, ending a nearly three-year-old nightmare.
Administrative Law Judge Marilyn Zahm is the new national president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges—the national union for ALJ’s who is one of the judges in the Buffalo ODAR.
Zahm said changes are taking place, in Buffalo and in ODAR offices across the U.S. which should reduce the backlog in the Buffalo office, and improve wait times for claimants.
“They have sent Buffalo cases to Albany for their judges to conduct the hearings. Those Albany judges will be coming to Buffalo starting in the spring and the summer, holding hearings in the Buffalo office.”
Zahm said the Social Security Administration also seems to be on a national hiring binge. The SSA hired more than 200 new ALJ’s in the past fiscal year, the agency is on course to hire about 250 in the present year, and another 250 for the following year, although ALJ’s are also retiring at a rapid pace, too.
Christopher Grover, a lawyer with the Jeffrey Freedman Attorneys firm, handles dozens of disability claims.
Grover said, disability appeals are also being heard by video teleconferencing, which allows ALJ’s in other states to hear local cases.
“Now they are finally stopping the ‘bleeding’, if you will. They are cutting into the backlog, and hopefully we are seeing that that will shift to cut down on the final wait time.”
Grover said he is seeing more staffers at the Buffalo ODAR, and it is encouraging for him and his clients.
“If the light at the end of the tunnel is a little bit closer, then that is always fantastic.”