Saturday, June 21, 2008

Social Security Administrative Law Judge Removed For Holding Two Jobs

The following article, by Ann Hardie, can be found in its entirety in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, published on June 21, 2008. The story involves an apparent exception to the ALJ ranks, but is indicative of a Commissioner who continues to play an active role in oversight of all adjudicative agency components. Excerpts are included below:

For three years, Kelly S. Jennings ruled on disability claims for the Social Security Administration while simultaneously serving as an active-duty lawyer for the Army. This week, a ruling determined the Atlanta administrative law judge can be removed from his civilian job for double-dipping. Social Security has also filed papers to recover more than $309,000 in back pay and interest from Jennings.

By dividing his time between jobs, Jennings could not give Social Security his full attention, which in turn contributed to the nation's mountainous backlog of disability claims, wrote William N. Cates, the administrative law judge who heard the case. Jennings worked in Social Security's Atlanta North office, known as the agency's "backlog capital" of the country. With an average wait of 838 days, the office in May ranked as the slowest in the nation in resolving the appeals of people who say they are too sick or injured to work.

Jennings, who said he made more than $300,000 a year working for both Social Security and the Army, acted "purely for personal gain," Cates wrote. "Judge Jennings' dual employment and the ramifications thereof warrant his removal." In an interview Thursday, Jennings said he was "shocked" by Cates' decision. He said he was among the most productive judges in his office. "It wasn't like I was on the golf course," Jennings said. "I took it upon myself to hold hearings in an effort to reduce the backlog and render decisions to give individuals the benefits they had worked for their entire life. For that, I am being fired."

But last year, the agency filed a claim with the Merit Systems Protection Board, the agency charged with protecting the rights of federal employees, seeking to remove Jennings.

Social Security claimed Jennings improperly held two jobs and failed to fully disclose his active-duty status with the Army. Cates, ruling on behalf of the board, agreed. Jennings plans to exhaust his appeals to keep his job. Social Security officials, citing privacy concerns, will not discuss Jennings' current status. But Jennings said he has been placed on paid administrative leave until a final decision is reached.

"We are pleased by the decision," Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue wrote in an e-mail. "The irresponsible conduct of this employee shouldn't tarnish the reputations of our ALJs, who have helped reduce the disability backlog by increasing their productivity by about 10 percent in the past year."

Jennings, 55, was appointed an administrative law judge and went to work at the Atlanta North office in 1994.For the past 25 years, Jennings also served as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. When he retired last month, Jennings held the rank of colonel with the Judge Advocate General's Corps, the Army's legal arm.

Jennings said he performed active military duty for a few months every year that he served as an administrative law judge and received pay from both the Army and Social Security "with no problem.” His current troubles stem from his continuous military duty from January 2003 to December 2005. Jennings did brief tours during that period in the Middle East. But during most of those years, Jennings said, he worked from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Fort McPherson in Hapeville, providing legal advice for the 3rd U.S. Army based in Kuwait.

He said he spent the rest of the weekdays and weekends working on Social Security cases both in his Atlanta North office and at home. Jennings said he took military leave when necessary to hold hearings. Jennings had signed an agreement with Social Security to work weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. While Jennings acknowledged that he did not adhere to that schedule, he called it "inconceivable" that his higher-ups were not aware of what he was doing. Military regulations would not have precluded Jennings from holding another government job. But a human resources specialist testified that the Social Security Administration does not allow employees to keep working their civilian jobs if they are activated for military duty. In August 2007, Social Security placed Jennings on paid administrative leave, he said. He is drawing his annual salary of $158,500.

Jennings said his annual Army pay ranged between $140,000 and $155,000 between 2003 and 2005."There was never a time I was double-dipping at all," he said. "I fully earned every dime of my salaries."

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

SSA admits it's time for new tickets........

For those of us who help clients in the disability process, simply the admission by the agency that post entitlement options need reexamination is a step forward.

For a thorough discussion of work incentives, visit Scarborough's blog.

This is something we will watch.

‘Ticket to Work’ Program Underutilized

Monday, June 2, 2008
Erin Smith, Staff Writer offers the following:

The Social Security Administration has announced changes to the rules for the “Ticket to Work” program, though the program has not garnered the response they had hoped.

Of the 10 million “tickets” issued nationwide by June 2007, only 171 had been activated, according to Social Security’s Technical Expert Tim Moore.

Moore told the Journal in an interview on Wednesday that he does not have specific numbers for individual states or local areas.

The program is federally funded and was signed into law in 1999. The first phase of Ticket to Work began in 2002 and in 2003,
the final phase of which North Carolina was a participant, was implemented. The program’s intent was to expand providers available
to those with disabilities who are seeking vocational rehabilitation, employment and related services. The program is available in
all 50 states and the U.S. territories.

According to Moore, the program is managed by Maximus, Inc. located in Virginia. When an individual receives their information, they
contact Maximus and the company puts them in contact with the agencies also known as employment networks.

The process of determining who is qualified for Ticket to Work is an automated process, said Moore.

A person must be between the ages of 18 and 64 and receive Social Security disability benefits or SSI. Candidates are selected based
on an automated review, according to Moore.

“It is a voluntary program,” said Moore. “Just because they receive a ticket doesn’t mean they have to activate it. The main advantage
is, if they activate the ticket, while they are active in the process, there is no medical review.”

Commissioner of Social Security Michael J. Astrue said, “Beneficiaries with disabilities will have greater flexibility and expanded
choices in obtaining services they need to attain their employment.”

Social Security is in the process of recruiting more organizations to serve as employment networks and also trying to encourage
greater participation from those who receive tickets, according to Astrue.

The changes include allowing the participation of individuals for a ticket even if they are expected to medically improve;
modifications to the employment network payment systems to create greater financial incentives for providers to participate;
increase the value of the ticket to enable participants to take advantage of “a more effective combination of services from
the state vocational rehabilitation agencies and employment networks;” and better alignment of the Ticket to Work program,
the Work Incentives Planning and Assistance Program, the Protection and Advocacy for Beneficiaries of Social Security Program,
and other Social Security incentives.