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Senate Committee Reveals Trouble with the Quality of Disability ALJ Decisions

Senate Committee Reveals Trouble with the Quality of ALJ Decisions

A recent article in the Washington Times discussed the increasing stress that the Social Security Disability system is operating under and how that stress has led to troubling problems affecting millions of Americans.

Investigators working for a Senate subcommittee examined hundreds of cases in which disability benefits were approved and found that those making the decisions frequently ignored warning signs such as incomplete or inconsistent information. Senators have said this review demonstrates the need for an overhaul of the existing system. One Senator said that the decisions from some administrative law judges (ALJs) were so bad that the final verdict seemed almost entirely arbitrary.

Though the first phase of this investigation involved looking over applications that were approved but should not have been, the Senate committee says it will next turn its attention to those cases that were denied and may have been denied wrongfully. Those in charge say they worry that they will discover the system is not helping many of the people it was designed to protect.

For its part, the Social Security Administration says it has work to do to fix problems in the system. However, they claim that outlier decisions occur far less often than they used to and the decisions of many ALJs are affirmed with much more regularity then ever before.

That may sound good, but problems still abound. The massive report showcased one ALJ from Oklahoma who has issued more than 1,000 decisions each year since 2006. Judge W. Howard O’Bryan Jr. peaked in 2008 with 1,846 decisions and regularly approved 90 percent or more of the claims. This compares to an average ALJ approval rate of about 60 percent. The investigation revealed that his decisions were notable only for their “poor quality” and how Judge O’Bryan often regurgitated the same boilerplate language in each case decision.

One case that apparently prompted the investigation, involved a man living as an adult “baby,” meaning he slept in an adult-sized crib and wore diapers. The man was collecting disability benefits despite having demonstrated carpentry skills and his ability to work with a reality TV show and a website for other adult “babies.”

The case of the adult “baby” highlighted another problem according to the Senate subcommittee and that is how out of date the list of jobs given to ALJs are. The list has not been updated since the 1970s and excludes many computer-related jobs that some people (possibly other adult “babies”) with disabilities might be able to perform.

If you think you may be entitled to Social Security Disability benefits and have questions, call The Law Offices of John T. Nicholson at 1-800-596-1533 for a free consultation today.

Posted in Social Security SSD/SSI | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Does my income affect my child’s ability to qualify for Social Security Benefits?

How much income can parents have before their children no longer qualify for Supplemental Security Income benefits?

Disabled children can qualify for benefits under the Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) program, which is administered by the Social Security Administration, depending: (1) on the nature of their disabilities; (2) on how much income they have (if any); and (3) on their available resources. Children’s “available resources” include the income (and assets) of their parents and guardians. Therefore, many parents and guardians of disabled children wonder how much income they can have before their children no longer qualify for SSI benefits.

The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) defines a child as someone who is not married; is not head of a household; and is under age 18, or is under age 22 and regularly attending school. This discussion only applies to SSI benefits for disabled children, as the SSA defines the terms “disabled” and “children.”

1. Nature of disability. According to the definition established by the applicable laws and regulations, a child is “disabled” if the child “has a medically determinable physical or mental impairment, which results in marked and severe functional limitations, and which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” In other words, a child is disabled for purposes of SSI benefits if the child has a very serious medical condition that will last (or has lasted) for at least one year. For example, a child who suffers from cystic fibrosis could qualify for SSI benefits. A child with a minor broken leg, but who did not otherwise have a serious medical condition, would probably not qualify.

2. Child’s income (if any). In terms of a child’s income, a child may not earn more than $1,000.00 per month from employment and still qualify to receive SSI benefits (in 2011; the limit on a child’s total monthly income changes every year). On the other hand, a child who is unemployed, or who is employed but earns less than $1,000.00 per month (in 2011), would meet the income limit.

3. Income and resources (i.e. assets) of parents or guardians. The determination of a child’s eligibility to receive SSI benefits also takes into account

Income, in this context, comes in two varieties: “earned income” and “unearned income.” Earned income consists of “wages from employment, net earnings from self-employment, certain royalties and honoraria, and sheltered workshop payments.” Unearned income consists of money received from other sources, “such as Social Security benefits, pensions, state disability payments, unemployment benefits, interest income, and cash from friends and relatives.” Some income is exempt and does not count toward the applicable limits. The following chart illustrates the income limits currently applicable in many (but not all) circumstances.

Number of Ineligible Children in Household

All Income is Earned

All Income is Unearned

One Parent in Household

Two Parents in Household

One Parent in Household

Two Parents in Household




































By “resources,” the SSA essentially means property. For instance, resources include bank accounts, cash, life insurance, real estate, stocks, U.S. savings bonds, vehicles and other property belonging to a child’s parents or guardians that could be exchanged for cash and used for food or shelter. Some resources, such as a home, household goods and personal effects, and money in pension funds, are exempt and do not count toward the applicable limits. Currently, the applicable resource limit (for non-exempt resources) is $2,000 for a single parent or guardian, and $3,000.00 for a couple.

To summarize: A disabled child’s eligibility for SSI benefits depends upon the nature of the child’s disability, the amount of income that the child earns (if any), and the income and resources available to the child—including resources available through parents and guardians. Regarding the resources of parents and guardians, the limits vary from case to case depending on the circumstances. The income limits listed in the foregoing chart, and the resource limits discussed above, might or might not apply in a specific situation because of the many rules and regulations, as well as exemptions, that govern SSI eligibility for disabled children. If you are the parent or guardian of a disabled child and would like to learn more about SSI eligibility, then talk with a lawyer with experience dealing with Social Security issues.

Posted in Social Security SSD/SSI | Tagged , | 54 Comments

Are Gay and Lesbian Couples Disadvantaged When Seeking Custody in Ohio?

Gay and lesbian couples are often concerned that their “non-traditional family” will be a disadvantage in custody decisions. While technically this issue is never to be determinative of custody disputes, lest tgay_adoptionhe Court violate the Equal Protection Clause, many gay and lesbian couples feel that their sexual orientation played a role in the ultimate disposition of the Court.   Putting aside potential biases of certain judges, there is at least one case that seems to lend credence to those concerns.  In 2008, the Second Appellant District in Clark County decided a case by the name of Page v. Page in which the Court specifically stated that a homosexual relationship of a mother caused adverse affects to the minor children and warranted a change of custody from that mother to the father.  The facts of that case can be summarized as follows:

Four years after the mother was designated the residential parent of both children, the father filed a motion to modify the allocation of parental rights and responsibilities.  The common pleas trial Court granted the father’s motion and awarded him custody.  The appellate court held that the common pleas court did not err in finding that a change of circumstances occurred as there was evidence that, as a collateral result of the mother’s relationship with her same-sex partner, both children had experienced personality disorders, and therefore, modification of custody was in the children’s best interest. The court determined that the adverse collateral effects of the mother’s relationship with her partner and the partner’s role in the children’s lives showed little room for improvement in the future.

While the Court was careful to say that it was not basing its decision on the simple fact that the mother was a lesbian, but rather the collateral affects that her relationship had on the children, it should give pause to the gay and lesbian couples fighting for custody.  This is something to keep an eye on in the future as more and more gay and lesbian couples fight for custody of one of the partner’s minor children.

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Do Grandparents Have the right to visit their grandchildren in Ohio?

GrandparentGrandkidsUnder current Ohio law, grandparents are permitted to petition the court for visitation rights with respect to their grandchildren.  One would think that such a petition would not be necessary, but, unfortunately, more than we would like to think grandparents are prevented from seeing thier grandchildren.  Quite frequently, grandparents turn to the courts in order to have the opportunity to spend time with their grandchildren. This often comes up as a problem when a couple divorces and whomever is chosen as the residential parent does not want his or her former in-laws to visit the children.  Therefore, grandparents need to be aware that if the Court finds that it is in the child’s best interest to have visitation with his or her grandparents, they do have legal recourse. However, it must be noted that the Court is required to give some special weight to the wishes of the parents as to whether the grandparents are granted the right to certain visitation with the children.

This does not mean that the parents wishes control the Court’s decision, but that if the parents feel strongly against visitation, the court must consider that fact.  But even if the residential parent does not want to allow the visitation, the Court can , and often does, grant the visitation if it is in the best interest of the child.  There are specific stautory provisions that cover the visitation rights of grandparents in Ohio, so you should seek the advice of counsel to determine if your case is worth pursuing.

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Children Services Home Studies When Custody Is an Issue


If a person wants to take custody of a child that is alleged to be an abused, neglected or dependent child, either with Children Services filing a complaint, or a private party filing a complaint for custody, those prospective custodians must have a home study conducted before they can take the child.

Homestudies may also be conducted when a parent wishes to have custody changed from the original residential parent to him or her.  In this instance, the Court may want to learn more about the prospective residence.

Many people get nervous when the issue of a home study is raised, fearing that outsiders will soon be prying into their lives in ways that seem untoward or unfair.  However, homestudies are rather pro forma  and the items the investigators are interested in are very basic in nature.  When Children Services or a private organization conduct a homestudy, they are effectively looking primarily at the following:

1. Is the home structurally sound?

2. Is there adequate room in the home that would allow the custodians to take-in another child?

3. Is the home sanitary and safe in all respects?

4. Who lives in the home? And would any current resident present a danger to this particular child if he or she were to be brought into the home?

While this is not the entire list of factors the investigators will look at (according to the investigators themselves), the truth is that the above list consists of the primary factors the investigators will be interested in. Like most agencies, Children Services is overworked and is constantly having to place children in safe environments and no case can be investigated in the manner it would be in a perfect world.  Therefore, when investigators visit a home they are looking for basic and immediate red-flags that would caution against placing the children in this particular home, mostly because the lack of resources prevent the  sort of in-depth investigation that all of us would prefer.

As long as the home is safe, sanitary and well equipped to take in another child, the homestudy should be positive in the end.

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