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Will You Get Approved for Disability Benefits? It May Depend on The Judge You’re Assigned

— February 27, 2023

Disability judges approved 54% of all Social Security disability claims in 2022, though some judges had approval rates as low at 10% and as high as 97%.

If you’re seeking federal disability benefits in 2023, it’s likely you’ll have a hearing. And the administrative law judge (ALJ) you’re assigned for that hearing matters.

A new study from Atticus shows that ALJ’s approval rates vary wildly — with some judges approving over 90% of applicants, and others approving as few as 10%.

Social Security disability programs provide a safety net to over 10 million people who are unable to work due to a health condition. For recipients, the monthly benefits payments are a vital source of income — and the healthcare the programs provide can be life-changing.

Atticus looked through every Social Security hearing decision in 2022 and ran the numbers on the nearly 1,300 judges to find their approval and denial rates.

Judges worked across 168 Social Security hearing offices and delivered about 322,000 total decisions, with an approval rate of just over 54%. While many judges approved around that figure, 123 judges approved 75% or more of their cases. On the flip side, there were 39 judges with an approval rate of 25% or less in 2022.

“Unfortunately, as shown by the drastic difference in approval rates, a judge’s determination is always going to be subjective to some extent,” said Sarah Aitchison, attorney at Atticus. “What judge you end up appearing before will likely have some impact on the success of your case.”

What Administrative Law Judges Do

There are two federal disability programs — Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The requirements for these programs vary, but the application and appeal process is the same.

That process is long. Most applicants wait 5-6 months for an initial decision, and 79.3% of applicants are denied when they first apply. At that point, they can appeal, and wait for a hearing date with an ALJ.

Administrative law judges make a decision on whether to approve or deny someone’s Social Security disability claim by considering all of the information in someone’s application file (medical information, work history, etc.) plus testimony from the applicant, vocational experts, and occasionally medical experts.

Administrative law judges with highest approval rates

Among judges with at least 100 decisions in 2022, there were 50 who approved 80% or more of their cases. Those 50 judges also aren’t all from one area. Combined, they heard cases in 25 different states and Puerto Rico.

Below are the top 25 disability judges by approval rate:

Online meeting, man in suit giving thumbs up gesture; image by Tumisu, via
Online meeting, man in suit giving thumbs up gesture; image by Tumisu, via

David M. Blume — 97%

Henry H. Chambers — 93%

Ronald Herman — 92%

Paul L. Johnston — 92%

Andrea Addison — 91%

Jeffrey Hatfield — 91%

Margo Stone — 89%

Jacqueline Y. Hall-Keith — 89%

Yeli Quinones-Regalado — 89%

Donald R. Colpitts — 89%

Daniel A. Piloseno Jr. — 89%

Melinda McIntyre — 89%

Benjamin R. McMillion — 88%

Jan Leventer — 88%

Michael R. Swan — 88%

Phillip C. Lyman — 87%

William Wallis — 87%

Marissa A. Pizzuto — 86%

David W. Engel — 86%

Matthew Malfa — 86%

Donna L. Walker — 86%

Whitfield Haigler Jr. — 86%

Gloria W. Green — 85%

John G. Farrell — 85%

Aubri Masterson — 84%

Find your judge: See all approval rates here.

Administrative law judges with the lowest approval rates

There were 31 disability judges who approved 25% or less of the cases they saw in 2022 (looking only at judges with at least 100 decisions). These 31 judges are also spread across the country, representing hearing offices in 20 states and the District of Columbia.

Kathleen Kadlec — 10%

Valencia Jarvis — 11%

Catherine Ma — 11%

Gordan Momcilovic — 12%

Peter R. Lee — 12%

Paul Isherwood — 13%

Joyce Francis — 14%

Suzette Knight — 14%

Leslie Perry- Dowdell — 16%

Gwendolyn M. Hoover — 16%

Diane S. Davis — 16%

Peri Collins — 17%

Cynthia G. Weaver — 18%

Sylvia H. Alonso — 19%

Mark M. Swayze — 19%

Brendan F. Flanagan — 20%

Deborah M. Giesen — 21%

Shannon H. Heath — 22%

Tammy Georgian — 22%

Vincent A. Misenti — 22%

Gerald R. Bruce — 22%

Jonathan P. Blucher — 23%

Diana Coburn — 23%

Cecilia LaCara — 23%

Chris Yokus — 24%

See the full list of judges by approval rate here.

What can disability applicants do?

Disability applicants don’t have a say in which judge they’re assigned. Historically, judges work through specific regional hearing offices (82% of judge’s take cases at a single office) — and  applicants are assigned an ALJ based on their location.

This has shifted slightly (many hearings went virtual post-COVID-19) — but judges are still designated to applicants and can’t be changed upon request.

One critical thing an applicant can do before a hearing is find a lawyer.

“Experienced lawyers may have come before your ALJ before; they may know that judge’s traits and idiosyncrasies,” says Sarah Aitchison, an attorney at Atticus. “Even if they aren’t familiar with the specific judge, they can prepare you for questions, cross examine the vocational expert, and help you make the best possible case.”

Government studies show applicants with lawyers are three times more likely to win benefits than those without. But if applicants are assigned a judge with a low approval rate, and are ultimately rejected, there is an opportunity to appeal again. These appeals, called federal court appeals, have lower win rates — but are still a good potential next step for applicants who felt they weren’t given due process.

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