September 2020 Legal Report
It has certainly been an interesting year to say the least. Between a pandemic and societal upheaval, the world as we knew it was thrown for an entire loop through the better part of 2020. However, with all that has gone on in this crazy year, the world of disability law has continued to flow with some changes to the systems in which we operate. With that being said, we want to make sure that we keep the membership up to date on some of the latest dealings with the agencies in our world.
The Workers’ Compensation Board has continued to operate regularly despite the COVID-19 crisis. The biggest change in the world of Workers’ Comp has been that all our hearings are now being done remotely through video conference. Our attorneys are in our offices throughout Long Island or from home offices while the clients are also situated comfortably in their homes or elsewhere. The hearings take place over video conference in the same manner that they would take place in person at one of the live hearing locations. The biggest change for attorneys in the system has to do with the pre-hearing meetings or conferences that we could have with our adversaries prior to the hearing. With regimented video conferences, it is impossible for us to simply video chat before a hearing unless you know the attorney with which you will be dealing that day. That is not always the case. Thankfully, as it relates to our members, we typically know the players on the other side of the table so not only do we have a good working relationship with them and can call them prior to the hearing, but we also know their tendencies and what will typically occur at the hearing even without those pre-hearing conversations. We have not seen any downturn or increase in negative results due to the video conferences, but the system does seem to be generally slower in some ways. As always, the key to these cases is preparation, and our attorneys are always over-prepared for anything that might happen at these hearings, so dealing with the pandemic has effectively been business as usual for us on the Workers’ Compensation front. Further, we do anticipate these video hearings to continue for the foreseeable future, and we have had indications that the Workers’ Compensation Board was headed in this direction even before the pandemic.
Social Security Disability cases have also been continuing to flow relatively smoothly. There was a brief time when all hearings were postponed due to the virus, and that was mostly due to the courthouses or government buildings being shut down. However, in quick order, the Social Security Administration set up the process of doing hearings by telephone. As such, since late April or early May, we have had the same steady calendar of Social Security Disability hearings before the same judges that we would have seen in Central Islip or other Social Security hearing points. From a practical standpoint, it has not changed the workflow in our office in a major way either. At the hearing level, all documents and medical reports are electronically filed, so both the judge and the attorneys can access all the records and evidence for a hearing by their home computers during the hearing without any real delay. While there are always some technological hiccups from time to time, in general we have seen these hearings be just as positive as they have been in person.
As it relates to cases on the application level with Social Security, we have seen some delays. While a typical application will usually take about four to six months for processing, the analysts at the district offices and at the state agency level do not seem to have the same access to the files while working remotely as they would have in their offices. Therefore, we did initially see delays slowing down the application process. Also, as opposed to the hearing level, the application level with Social Security is much more paper intensive, so with people working from their homes, it was very problematic early on. However, we are now seeing a steady increase in production since NYS has entered deeper phases of re-opening. Thankfully, we are not seeing an increase in denials as much as we are seeing our office staff must double check the district offices on a regular basis to make sure they are timely receiving our submissions.
With the New York State Retirement System, we have seen our biggest delays. Disability pension cases were slowed down for several reasons including that the Retirement System’s office staff was allegedly “working from home” but with little productivity being seen from our end. While we usually have a steady stream of mail from all the agencies that we deal with, the mail from the State Retirement System has been incredibly slow or non-existent for the first two months of the pandemic. Therefore, there are undoubtedly going to be delays catching up on the backload of work that the analysts at the Retirement System have on their desks. In addition, for months they were unable to schedule any state doctor appointments with their consultants, so the cases that were ready for that next step of medical development were effectively put in suspended animation until the doctors were prepared to see claimants. We are beginning to the see the cases that were both filed before and since the pandemic start to receive more attention at the State Retirement System level, so we are optimistic Retirement System is beginning the process to catch up on things.
Very fortunately, and thank God, we have not had to deal with any deaths caused by the coronavirus among our members. However, we want to bring to the attention of the membership that on 08/18/2020, President Trump signed a two (2) year First Responder Bill, which extends death benefits to survivors of public safety officers (police, firefighters, EMT’s , etc) who die as a result of exposure to the coronavirus. This provides a one-time lump sum payment of $359,315.00 and/or monthly education assistance of $1,224. 00
As always, we remain on top of all of the agencies with which we work on a daily basis. We have a great working relationship with them, and they have kept us in the loop as to the flow of their work and the status of our cases. If you have any questions or concerns about these topics or any topic related to the world of disability, please do not hesitate to contact us at 516-941-4403 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next month, please stay safe and healthy.