WASHINGTON -- In a move that could delay or deny benefits for tens of thousands of people, the Social Security Administration has told its judges that they should, in most cases, disregard federal court precedents if those rulings conflict with agency policies.

The order, issued as the agency faces a huge backlog of disputed claims, has drawn protests from federal courts, members of Congress and agency employees.

It is being compared to positions taken in the early 1980s by the Reagan administration, which said it was bound only by Supreme Court decisions and did not have to "acquiesce" in decisions of lower courts that contradicted its reading of the Social Security law.

Democrats denounced the Reagan administration's practice as lawless, and the administration took a more moderate position after Congress made clear that it disapproved of the practice. This week, the House Ways and Means Committee will hold a hearing to examine the practice.

The Social Security agency recently told its administrative law judges, who rule on claims for benefits, that they might face remedial training and "disciplinary action" if they did not follow the agency's policies.

"An administrative law judge is bound to follow agency policy even if, in the administrative law judge's opinion, the policy is contrary to law," the agency said in a confidential memorandum to its judges. A copy of the memorandum was obtained from a Social Security employee who disagrees with its conclusions.

The directive means some people who file claims will be less likely to obtain benefits because the agency's policies are often stricter than court decisions.

The disputes often involve evaluating pain. A person, for example, complains of excruciating pain, but doctors cannot fully explain its cause with X-rays or other "objective medical evidence." In thousands of cases, Social Security officials have given such complaints less weight than courts have said they should in deciding whether to award or continue benefits. At issue are benefits under the Social Security Disability Insurance Program and Supplemental Security Income, which is for the needy elderly, disabled and blind.

Likewise, a claimant's doctor might find disability in a 58-year-old man who has had a heart attack and has chronic respiratory problems. Government doctors might say the man could still work. But courts often conclude that the treating doctor's opinion is entitled to more weight.

Social Security officials said they could not operate a uniform nationwide program if they had to follow the decisions of various courts. "Administrative law judges can decide facts, but not the law," said agency spokesman Philip Gambino. "They have to apply the law as written in our regulations and policies."

Pub Date: 4/21/97

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