By SAM DOLNICK
Published: April 12, 2011
The Queens office that hears appeals of Social Security disability
cases is well known to lawyers, judges and many other New Yorkers as
an inhospitable place to seek benefits.
It has had the 10th-highest rejection rate among 166 offices across
the country this fiscal year. Lawyers say many applicants have been
reduced to tears by harsh questioning from the administrative law
judges who hear the appeals; some lawyers have advised their clients
to rent apartments or move to homeless shelters in other boroughs so
they can plead their cases elsewhere.
And federal judges have rejected scores of the Queens rulings in
recent years, complaining of legal errors, "combative" hearings and a
tone that one court called "brusque, intemperate and unhelpful."
Now, a class-action lawsuit filed on Tuesday in Federal District Court
in Brooklyn says that five of the eight Queens judges are not just
difficult, but also biased against the applicants — many of whom are
poor or immigrants — and have systematically denied benefits to the
disabled by making legal and factual errors...
...Together, the five have rejected an average of 63 percent of the
cases they have heard in the fiscal year that began in September,
compared with a national average of 36 percent, according to an
analysis of data by The New York Times...The Queens office, in a
federal building in the Jamaica section, had the nation's
third-highest rejection rate from 2005 to 2008, according to a
separate analysis by The News Journal, a Delaware newspaper, that is
cited in the lawsuit.
The Times's analysis found that the rejection rate for the entire
Queens office, 50.9 percent, was the highest in New York State, and
far higher than in other New York City boroughs; in the current fiscal
year, Manhattan has an average denial rate of 37 percent, the Bronx 33
percent, and Brooklyn 14.5 percent.
The Queens office also ranked fifth in the nation for the percentage
of its decisions that were sent back for rehearing in the 2007 fiscal
year, according to an audit by the Social Security Administration's
...Mr. Frye said the adversarial tone cited in the lawsuit was common
in disability offices, and "part of the process."
But federal judges who have reviewed the Queens cases have disagreed.
In remanding a 2005 case, Judge Dora L. Irizarry said the transcript
offered "a study in combative questioning, which hampered the
In that case, Joan Ginsberg, who had worked for years as a freelance
proofreader and copy editor, sought benefits after her doctor
diagnosed chronic fatigue syndrome. But the Queens judge, Mr.
Nisnewitz, said he was skeptical of the doctor's credentials and
refused to speak with the physician, even though judges'
responsibilities include contacting medical experts.
"I'm not going to call her," he said in the hearing. "I don't make
calls. I don't do that."
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