As I begin writing this it was 39 years ago that a letter appeared in Trial Magazine asking if anyone was interested in attending a meeting in New Orleans for attorneys who represented individuals on Social Security Disability claims. What precipitated the letter was the worry about this new concept being introduced called “sequential evaluation.”
Steve Babitsky wrote the letter and he, Rudolph Patterson, now deceased and Cliff Weisberg were the founding fathers of the journey we are all on called NOSSCR. I called Steve when I received the magazine, answered a few questions, and was invited to speak on workers’ compensation offsets. At that first meeting we had no schedule; people were asked when they were ready to speak and then presented.
We had a short business meeting, chose the name we currently have, and selected Steve’s young associate, Nancy Shor as our executive director. We decided to have another meeting six months from then in Boston.
The practices grew as the Reagan Administration tried to terminate 500,000 people per year while making it more difficult for people to win their initial applications. CBS was interested in this issue and interviewed me and several of my clients. One of them appeared with me and host Bill Moyer on TV. . The show was a big hit, the Reagan Administration demanded but was not granted “equal time” to respond which was sometimes required then and the issue of terminations was brought before the nation. My client, whose benefits had been terminated, was reinstated three days after the show aired.
NOSSCR’s membership kept growing and we were listened to in Congress and by the administration. That is because we were always demanding what was best for the claimant, including those who were unrepresented. This helped us be listened to in Congress, by the Administration and by the non-profit partners we were creating throughout the country. Our commitment to the disabled population carried us proudly in many directions.
In the late 80’s Social Security tried to get viscous. They came up with a plan to require the appeal to show every issue that was being appealed and nothing that was not listed on the form or attached memo would be considered. I spoke with the associate commissioner of Social Security several times about this. She was adamant that in any legal proceedings you need to state your cause of action and stick to it and we should follow those rules at Social Security. We were having trouble making her understand that often someone came to us; we filed the appeal, then, after obtaining the evidence, found out all of the conditions that were disabling our clients. Gathering evidence often demonstrated additional reasons for the appeal. Requiring us to blindly state the reasons was unfair let alone what it would do to the unrepresented claimant.
Somehow, the New York Times got a copy of an inter-office memo explaining why the plan would be implemented and wrote a front-page article about the unfair plans of the Social Security Administration. Congress held emergency hearings on the appellate procedures of Social Security and this unfair plan was finally put to rest. We thought our journey would quiet down at that time in the early 90’s but we should have known better. The administration brought up a plan to say they would only consider the conditions alleged on the initial application. If any new conditions were alleged later a new application would have to be filed and the claimant would forfeit the benefits from the initial application until the second one was filed. We once again tried to explain to Social Security that this would be unfair to most claimants because they didn’t know to put every single problem they had on their application. The response was, “Well, people will just have to hire you to file for disability.” Once again, we used our resources to demonstrate how unfair this would be to claimants and the plan, although still considered now by a few people in Congress, was finally scrapped.
It was at this time that I began discussing the possibility of not filing fee petitions on every claim. The Government Accounting Office determined, after a six-month study, the amount of employee hours spent on approving fee petitions with absolutely no savings to the government. They found a miniscule amount of complaints filed regarding fees and we helped create the current fee agreement system. It was anticipated that the maximum fee would increase regularly. When this plan was first implemented no one thought that the fees would remain stagnant as they have.
We next addressed the problem of the delays in processing claims. Social Security had only paper files at the time and its computer system would not handle anything else. It was determined that about 75% of the delay was because the files were constantly on trucks between the district office, Baltimore and the State Agency. Walking into the Social Security Building in Baltimore was amazing to see files everywhere. You couldn’t imagine the disorder at headquarters.
Four years later Susan Brown (no relation) took on the challenge of making Social Security paperless. Through this, NOSSCR had been telling Social Security how much more efficient it will be when this happens.
From 1993 through 1998 we were told that any day Social Security would change its policy and allow firms instead of only individuals to represent claimants on disability claims. We were then told it wouldn’t be any day but it would be soon. I was told recently that OGC was asked to write a position paper on this matter to present to the Administration.
It was at this time, while I was on my firm’s journey and NOSSCR was on its, I had my own frightening scare. The night before I was to leave for New York City for a hearing, I got a headache that was worse than anything you can imagine. In spite of that, I went to the hearing and then went to New Hampshire the next day to visit my daughter.. When I got home I went to an ER where I was misdiagnosed and treated for migraines and meningitis. Eventually I learned that aneurysms had ruptured and when they opened my scalp they fixed of them. I was told prior to surgery I would have less than a five percent chance of surviving the surgery and would probably never work again.
I was in my office two hours a day six weeks after the surgery. Nine weeks after my surgery I attended the NOSSCR’s conference in New York City although I really don’t remember it. But I was a loyal NOSSCR person faithful to our journey.
While all the issues with the administration were going, on the idea of a user fee (which was first thought of in 1982 to be imposed both on represented claimants and their attorneys) was brought up again. It would be charged only to attorneys (non-attorneys did not have withheld fees at this time). We marshalled all of our resources, used all of our “clout” to explain why this was unfair to claimants and killed the idea. Then one day, with no warning, as the budget was being debated in Congress, the user fee was introduced at 6 p.m. and passed overwhelmingly at 6:10 p.m.
We decided that it was time to become more politically active and NOSSCR members began to start collecting political contributions. We made this a bipartisan issue with Democrats contributing to Republicans and Republicans contributing to Democrats.
We held fundraisers for all of the major players in the House and Senate. Some spoke at our conferences or in meetings with NOSSCR members. At this time, we also began talking about expanding withholding to SSI claims by showing members of Congress how many more claimants were represented on Title II claims than on SSI. We finally had the votes in Congress and withholding was won in a bill that also reduced the user fee.
All of this was done in a bipartisan way by showing how we were helping claimants. The NOSSCR journey of doing what is best for the claimant always helps our clients which help the representative. We proved we can make things happen when we show those who make the decisions that we are helping them as well as our clients.
We of course cannot forget the drug and alcohol battle. In the beginning, even those with substance addictions could receive disability benefits. The law then changed to limit them to a maximum of three years of benefits if they were in treatment. Before results could be reviewed on this law, a new law passed that prevented payment of benefits if substance abuse was a material factor contributing to the finding of disability. Shortly after, former Congressman Jim Bunning (R-KY) who was then chair of the Social Security committee stated that, “No one is disabled they are just not motivated. And if they are disabled God is punishing them so why should the government give them any money.” Every December I sent Congressman Bunning a letter that began, “Dear Congressman Bunning: My God forgives your God for doing this to my clients…” and I would then give him descriptions of my most horrific cases of the year (i.e. The nurse bitten by an aids patient who became HIV positive whose husband was hit by a car crossing a street and her son had stage four cancer). Every January former Congressman Steve LaTourette (R-Oh) would call laughing about how upset Bunning was with my letter.
The same battles continue for NOSSCR members on this journey. The Administration still talks of changing the appeal rules. The chair of the Social Security subcommittee in Congress would like disability to be a listings only requirement for claimants to receive payment. The President is trying to change the way judges are hired and take away their job security. The rate of claim approval has gone down dramatically in the last five years.
Our journey must continue to stand up for what we believe is right. Our challenge though, is to continue doing what is best for the claimant, knowing that if we do, our income will be satisfactory.
Unfortunately, Eric Conn created a new challenge for all of us. We are all climbing the Conn Mountain with no peak in sight. His actions created mistrust by Administrative Law Judges, Social Security personnel and politicians throughout the country. They scrutinize each of us as if we could be clones of Conn. It is incumbent upon each of us to continue practicing at the highest standards. To the best of my knowledge there are no other Eric Conns practicing Social Security. NOSSCR members are all repulsed by what he did and many have stepped forward to take care of the claimants harmed by his illegal actions. Once again, NOSSCR members are doing what is best for the claimant. A tradition we can be proud of. That is what Social Security representatives continue to do on their journey to help deserving claimants.
What is next on our journey to advocate for the rights of the disabled? One senator thinks that no one should be allowed to receive more than three years of disability benefits. Another thinks the system should be privatized and a disabled person should only be able to draw out the amount that has been put in from deductions from their pay and matched by their employer. Another thinks that smokers, like people with drug and alcohol addictions, should not be eligible for disability. A proposal in the budget would eliminate direct payment of attorney fees. I cannot even imagine what else people in Congress who do not believe in Social Security would like to do to our clients.
Our NOSSCR journey demands that we always stand up for the individuals who need our help.
The pride Cliff Weisberg, Steve Babitsky and Rudolf Patterson had as they watched NOSSCR grow is something that everyone in the practice must take note of; work to continue their legacy and that of everyone who attended that first meeting 39 years ago; and constantly remember that what we are doing for our clients changes lives.
In my consulting I often ask people what they like best about their clients. Social Security attorneys give an answer that no one else gives. Work comp lawyers, PI attorneys, criminal lawyers, estate planning, no one but Social Security lawyers respond this way. They tell me what they like best about their clients is the hugs.
Representing people on disability claims provides a satisfaction to an attorney that goes beyond just being successful. The journey, when done properly, envelops a feeling, a way of life and a standard of respect for everyone you come in contact. Be proud of your own journey but stand tall and with NOSSCR on its journey to help our clients, our practices and justice in the Social Security world. That’s why we created NOSSCR 39 years ago. We are the main defenders of respect and dignity for our clients. We cannot ever forget that NOSSCR began a journey for the claimants to be treated fairly, represented properly and respected by a system that is so large it has trouble remembering that it is dealing every day with human lives.
Stay on this journey because helping the people you help, the families that need your representation, and the system that is much better for your advocacy, benefits from the journey our organization began 39 years ago.