How long does the administrative law judge take to make a decision on an SSD or SSI disability case?

Note:Here are recent statistics provided by SSA on this issue: "As of March of this year, about 1.1 million claimants were awaiting a hearing decision, and the average processing time for a claim was about 518 days...with the average age of 318 days, measured as the time from the date of the hearing request."

This does not mean, however, that all cases take only approximately one and a half years (518 days) from beginning to end. Very often, they take 2-3 years. It does mean, however, that it can take a long time to get a hearing date.

Pretty awful. But aren't there deadlines for decisions?

Individuals who file for public benefits such as medicaid or food stamps usually become aware of the fact that those programs operate under deadlines. Meaning that if you file an application for one of those benefits, the issuing agency (a department of social services) is obligated to determine your eligibility within a set number of days. Depending on the program, this could be 30 days, 45 days, or 90 days.

The disability benefit programs operated by the social security administration (title 2 Social Security Disability and title 16 SSI disability) are very different in this regard. There are no deadlines for an application for SSD disability or an application for SSI disability.

This, of course, makes sense since disability examiners (the individuals who make decisions on claims at the initial claim levels) do not control how long it may take a doctor or hospital to comply with a request for medical records.

It also makes sense because allowing disability examiners as much time as they need to properly determine a case is in line with the best interests of the claimant. If deadlines for disability claims did exist, it is certain that many claimants would be denied simply the social security administration had not been given enough time to gather the needed documentation.

The absence of deadlines also applies to disability hearings and administrative law judges. ALJs do not have processing deadlines that determine how long they may take to arrive at a decision.

How long does it take for a judge to make a decision on an SSD or SSI disability case? It often depends on how heavy the caseloads are at a particular hearing office. It can also depend on the following:

1. Whether or not at the time of the hearing all the medical evidence had been received. Very often, hearings are held when medical records are still outstanding, meaning that either the claimant or the claimant's social security attorney had requested medical record updates from one of the claimant's treatment sources but these records had not arrived by the time of the hearing.

Usually when this happens, the judge will hold the case open and allow the attorney sufficient time to obtain the records and then send them to the hearing office. This, of course, delays the decision-making process, but it helps the case.

2. Whether or not the judge determined, at the time of the hearing, that the claimant needed to be sent to a consultative examination. Usually, consultative exams (a CE exam is performed by an independent doctor or psychologist who is paid by SSA to perform the exam and send a report of their findings to SSA) are scheduled by disability examiners when a case is being determined at the disability application or reconsideration appeal level.

However, there are instances in which a disability judge will decide that a consult is needed to provide additional information for the case. Again, this is for the benefit of the claimant's case, but it can slow down the process.

How long it takes to receive a decision from an administrative law judge may vary considerably. Some claimants will receive a notice of decision following a hearing just several weeks after the hearing has been held. In other cases, it can literally take months for a claimant to receive a decision notice. And this can occur even when the judge indicates at the hearing that he or she will approve the case and award benefits.

Why does that occur? Because even if a judge decides to issue an approval, the notice of decision must still be written. Decision notices, however, are not written by judges but are written, instead, by decision writers (usually a staff attorney at the hearing office) who, themselves, are often backed up cases.

If you have a hearing and do not receive a notice of decision within 90 days of the hearing date, you may wish to followup the status of the case by making a call to the hearing office. Usually, the answer to an inquiry will simply be that the case is still pending.

However, there are occasions in which a status call will have the effect of reminding a judge's clerk that certain medical records are still outstanding and still need to be gathered. So, status calls are not always a waste of time and can sometimes be beneficial.

Of course, any claimant who was represented at a disability hearing should have their social security lawyer contact the hearing office to make the status call. For one thing, it is their job to do this. But, secondly, it is never a good idea to leave one's representative out of the loop when it comes to information about the status of a claim.

About the Author: Tim Moore is a former Social Security Disability Examiner in North Carolina, has been interviewed by the NY Times and the LA Times on the disability system, and is an Accredited Disability Representative (ADR) in North Carolina. For assistance on a disability application or Appeal in NC, click here.

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These pages answer some of the most basic questions for individuals who are considering filing a claim.

Filing for disability, tips for how to file