CHICAGO (CN) - Administrative law judges will have to "work harder" to meet efficiency quotas set by the Social Security Administration after the 7th Circuit dismissed a lawsuit challenging those demands on Friday.
The Association of Administrative Law Judges argued in federal court that some of its 1,200 member ALJs face an illegal quota that infringes on their right to decisional independence under the Administrative Procedures Act.
The plaintiff ALJs are Article I judges who preside over claims involving the activities of the government's administrative agencies. They claim that they are not given the same protections and independence given to federal judges who are classified as Article III judges.
The issue came to a head when the Social Security Administration began requiring its administrative law judges to decide between 500 and 700 cases a year.
At oral argument, Judge Richard Posner was not sympathetic to the judges' claims.
"How does having to do 500 cases interfere with judicial integrity?" he asked. "Some jurisdictions have a higher workload. Why do you think they've done this?"
"For political expediency," said Judge Marilyn Zahm, who was representing her ALJ colleagues. "To move a certain number of cases. It's perverting ..."
"It only perverts it if judges refuse to work harder," said Posner. "What's the evidence that judges can't work harder?"
In an opinion filed Friday, Posner dismissed the ALJ's suit, saying "an incidental and unintentional effect of a change in working conditions is not actionable under the Administrative Procedure Act."
Posner compared the judge's claim to that of a poultry worker on an assembly line who is asked to debone more chickens per hour.
"He will spend less time deboning each chicken than he might think desirable to make sure no bits of bone are left in the chicken when it leaves his work station on the conveyor belt. In other words, the quality of his output would decline. Yet he would not be heard to claim that his decisional independence was being compromised," the opinion stated.
The court found that a reduced caseload might permit ALJs to make better benefits decisions, but that their current caseload does not interfere with their ability to make an independent decision.
"In the 1960s and 1970s there were very steep increases in federal court caseloads, and increases in the number of judgeships lagged. So each judge had to work harder. Maybe some judges responded by dismissing more cases earlier than they would have preferred to do," Posner said. "Would this have meant that by failing to increase the number of judges in proportion to the increase in caseload, the government was interfering with federal judges' decisional independence? The answer is no, and it is no here as well."
Judge Kenneth Ripple concurred with the majority opinion that there is not judicial remedy for the ALJs claim. But he wrote separately to express his concern that the important adjudicative role of the ALJ must not be sacrificed to efficiency.
"I cannot accept even the slightest intimation that the exercise of legislative power, even with the most benign of motivations, could not constitute a significant constitutional impairment of our own work," Ripple said. "I see no reason why we should take as a given that those same courts ever can be similarly impaired by being deprived of the tools necessary to achieve their assigned task with integrity."
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.