Threats of violence and bodily harm to judges, who hear Social Security disability cases, have increased from claimants angry over being denied benefits or frustrated at lengthy delays in processing claims.
Threats made to kill or harm administrative law judges or staff over the past year increased to 80 in number, accounting for an 18 percent surge over the previous reporting period, according to a data by the Social Security Administration (SSA).
Threats of bodily harm and violence are being made against the spouses and children of the judges too, according to an Association of Administrative Law Judges (AALJ) statement.
The AALJ, which represents the approximately 1400 administrative law judges employed at the SSA and the Department of Health and Human Services, is concerned that these threats will be acted upon. Previously, two judges were forced to take disability retirement after being attacked by frustrated claimants.
In the U.S., nearly 2 million people are waiting to find out if they qualify for Social Security disability benefits, with many having to wait more than two years to see their first payment.
The long delay in processing and the backlog have forced some claimants to resort to violence or threaten violence.
According to the AALJ, some claimants, who were denied benefits, have gone as far as threatening to take his guns and shoot employees in the Social Security hearing office or join the Taliban and hurt some people.
One claimant said he was a sniper in the military and would go take care of the problem.
Fifty of the 80 threats, AALJ noted, came between March and August, including that of a Pittsburgh claimant who threatened to kill herself outside the hearing office or fly a plane into the building like a disgruntled tax protester did earlier this year at the Internal Revenue Service building in Austin, Texas.
No threat has been carried out so far this year. However, last year, a judge in Los Angeles was hit over the head with a chair during a hearing and a judge in Newburgh, N.Y., was punched by a claimant when he showed up for work.
In January, a gunman possibly upset about a reduction in his Social Security benefits killed a U.S. courthouse security guard and injured a deputy marshal in Las Vegas during a furious gun battle.
According to Randall Frye, president of AALJ, most Social Security and Immigration judges do not have a bailiff or a security guard in their courtrooms and many of these facilities are only protected by private security guards.
Social Security hearings are often held in leased commercial office space rather than government buildings and lack of metal detectors and highly emotional cases make for a dangerous combination, Frye said.
Agrees Dana Marks, a San Francisco-based immigration judge. According to Mark, the decisions that immigration judges make are often life-or-death because the average lifetime payout of a Social Security disability claim is roughly $250,000 and in contrast, many of those who are denied become impoverished or homeless.
Immigration judges are also sometimes forced to banish long-term residents or remove people who fear persecution in their homelands. Understandably, that can be incredibly stressful, Marks said.
We're making decisions in real time, sitting eye-to-eye with the claimant. If I order someone removed [from the United States], I may be riding the elevator with them the next minute, Marks said.
AALJ has appealed to the Congress to beef up security in courthouses and to provide larger spaces for courtrooms. It has also requested the Congress to address the issue of staffing shortages which played a significant and long term role in preventing administrative law judges from addressing the developing backlog.