The Fox 5 I-Team has found some Georgia judges who rule on disability claims almost always deny them... while others almost always give the go-ahead.
Even worse, Georgia has the fourth longest wait time of any state for a judge to grant disability benefits -- nearly 500 days.
Imagine waiting that long for help. Lester Pruyne sure can.
"It's hard to go from being a man that can do anything to being a man that has to struggle through getting through it every day," Lester said.
Walk in this 52-year-old man's shoes and you'll feel the effects of diabetic neuropathy... or degenerative disc disease... arthritis... full blown depression.
"My feet hurt all the time," Lester said quietly. "They're numb all the time. I don't let anyone touch them."
After years of being able to outplay and outwork anyone, Lester says he realized he could no longer work as grounds supervisor at Clark-Atlanta University... or really anywhere else.
"I think it's not fair to everybody that works all their life and they pay into Social Security and it's a crap shoot if or when you might even get it," said Lester.
A gamble Lester and his wife Leanne had no idea would take so long to win.
To get $1129 dollars in monthly disability benefits from Social Security, Lester first sent all his medical records to a disability examiner.
Nine months later -- denied.
So Lester appealed. Three months later: another disability examiner handed down the same ruling: denied.
In the meantime, the couple couldn't pay their bills. Leanne pawned her wedding ring.
"My wedding ring's gone. That was uh, the hardest thing. The hardest thing," she said.
So they appealed a second time. For the first time, this appeal would be in front of a Social Security disability judge in downtown Atlanta. It took another six months to get on that schedule.
Lester had a hard time sleeping the night before.
"I just thought man, I hope the judge had a good day, you know, the day before," he remember. "I just thought of things like that. And in the back of my mind I said I'm going to get in here and they're just going to turn me down again because they just don't care."
Or turn him down because that's what some judges are most likely to do. We analyzed six years worth of Social Security disability appeals in Atlanta.
Turns out, sometimes the real luck is which judge is assigned your case.
In Georgia, 47% of disability appeals get approved. But some judges do a lot more. Robert T. Jackson, Jr. and Glenn Embree approved 75% of all their cases. Judge Richard McCully -- 78%. You want your disability case in front of him all right.
But others are far more conservative. Dale Glendening granted only 22%. And if your case lands on judge Brendan Flanagan's name... look out. In a five-year period, he only approved 19% of the disability appeals before him.
"Unfortunately, it's a process that just might not be fair," says attorney Thomas O'Brien.
He represents disability clients before many of those judges. He also blogs about the complicated process for sick people to get the benefits their entitled to.
He doesn't think the delays are intentional. Congress, he says, just won't fully fund the appeals system.
"I don't think there's an overt attempt to wait people out so that they experience financial or health distress but I think it is a current byproduct of the state of the system," he told Fox 5 I-Team reporter Randy Travis.
"It's happening, though," said Randy. "And what do you do about it?"
"There's not a lot to be done." replied O'Brien.
None of those judges would talk to us. A spokesperson for Social Security says in the last five years overall judges are getting "more consistent" in their rulings. But even though they plan to hire more judges this year, the wait for an answer isn't getting any shorter.
Lester's case wound up in front of a judge who averages a 41% approval rate.
"Thank God we got her," said his wife Leanne. "Because if we had got the 19 percent guy, I mean we might not have got it and we'd still be waiting here trying to figure out how."
More than 500 days after they first applied for disability benefits, they finally got the answer they needed. Appeal granted.
"It was the biggest relief ever. At first I was in shock. Because I was only in there for 15 minutes and she give it to me... and I was in shock," said Lester. "Wow. It's over."
Lester was approved for disability in October. He'll eventually get several thousand dollars in back pay. A maximum of $6000 will go to the attorney he hired to handle his appeal before the judge
But because of a backlog, as of this writing, January 14, 2015, he still hasn't received his first disability check.
That meant another very rough Christmas without benefits that he earned... benefits that the system now says he deserved all along.
Here are some links that might help:
- Official social security website that explains how to file for benefits: ssa.gov/disability/
- Unofficial website that tabulates government data to show the approval rates for individual judges: disabilityjudges.com/state/georgia