Social Security disability: Stay in line or start all over?

Georgians who apply for Social Security disability often face an expensive, life-saving decision if their application is denied: stay in line or start all over?

The FOX 5 I-Team first reported the long wait time for a judge's ruling on disability benefits.

Georgia has the fourth longest wait in the country. More than 500 days.

The system has created a frustrating guessing game for the people who say they need it the most.

For 13 years Juanita Flanagan stacked batteries, alternators and starters for an auto supply house in metro Atlanta. It was hard work on her body.

"I kept taking ibuprofen and I woke up one morning and I couldn't raise my arm," she said.

According to her medical records, Juanita had two unsuccessful surgeries on her left shoulder, still experiences blurred vision, severe back pain, and says she can't walk without falling or even sit for long periods of time.

The now 53-year-old grandmother filed for Social Security disability benefits. An earlier FOX 5 I-Team investigation showed how, for some Georgians, getting benefits may not depend so much on how sick you are, but on which judge you get. Some judges seem to always grant those appeals. Others almost always deny them.

"Not that I wanted to get hurt or looked forward to getting hurt, but they took the money out, paid it into Social Security, and now I'm not able to get it," Juanita said. "So to me that is a joke."

After being denied twice, and waiting nearly three years, Juanita finally got a hearing before a judge, someone who happened to have the same last name but no relation: Brendan Flanagan, a judge who over the last five years said yes to only 19 percent of the disability cases he heard.

No judge in Atlanta is tougher.

He found there were many jobs Juanita could still do.

"One of them was putting lenses in eyeglasses." she said to FOX 5 I-Team reporter Randy Travis.

"Like the glasses you're wearing now? And you could actually put the glasses in the frame?"

"In the frame or be a mail sorter at the Post Office."

Like so many other Georgians denied disability benefits by a judge, Juanita found herself stuck in the worse sort of traffic jam.

She could stay in line and appeal Judge Flanagan's decision, waiting another year for an answer. Or get out of line and file a new claim for disability. Going back to the beginning and starting her wait all over again, even though that meant giving up any back pay she had earned since filing her first claim.

She decided to file a new claim. The numbers suggest she made the right choice.

According to records obtained by the FOX 5 I-Team, Judge Flanagan's decisions are appealed more than almost any other judge in the Atlanta office. Yet over a five-year period his decisions are upheld 80-percent of the time. He may be the toughest, but the appeals council rarely reverses his decisions.

Overall in that time period, if you appeal a judge's decision in Atlanta, there's a two out of three chance your appeal will fail.

"The odds are in favor of starting a brand new case," disability attorney Thomas O'Brien said.

"Even though you have to wait a lot more time again," Randy pointed out.

"That's correct. It's piling hardship on top of hardship unfortunately."

After another year of waiting, Juanita just learned she's got a new hearing date. She doesn't know who will preside over her appeal this time.

What happens if Juanita Flanagan winds up in front of Judge Flanagan again?

"Well, I hope there's some way I can request a different judge." said  Flanagan. "My record should show that I've already been before Judge Flanagan and I just hope I don't get him anymore."