WASHINGTON — Social Security’s disability program is overwhelmed by so many claims that judges sometimes award benefits they might otherwise deny just to keep up with the flow of cases, according to a lawsuit filed by the judges themselves.
The Social Security Administration says the agency’s administrative law judges should decide 500 to 700 disability cases a year.
The agency calls the standard a productivity goal, but the lawsuit contends it is an illegal quota that requires judges to decide an average of more than two cases per workday.
‘‘When the goals are too high, the easy way out is to pay the case,’’ said Randall Frye, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges and a judge in Charlotte, N.C. ‘‘Paying the case is a decision that might be three pages long. When you deny benefits, it’s usually a 15- or 20-page denial that takes a lot more time and effort.’’
The lawsuit raises serious questions about the integrity of the disability hearing process by the very people in charge of running it. It comes as the disability program faces serious financial problems.
The disability program’s trust fund will run out of money in 2016, according to projections by Social Security’s trustees.
At that point, the system will collect only enough money in payroll taxes to pay 79 percent of benefits. That would trigger an automatic 21 percent cut in benefits.
Congress could redirect money from Social Security’s much bigger retirement program to shore up the disability program, as it did in 1994.
But that would worsen the finances of the retirement program, which is facing its own long-term financial problems.
The lawsuit was filed by the judges’ union and three judges on Thursday in federal court in Chicago. It names the agency and Acting Social Security Commissioner Carolyn Colvin as defendants.
Colvin took over in February after Commissioner Michael Astrue’s six-year term expired.
The union announced the lawsuit at a press conference Friday in Washington. A Social Security spokesman declined to comment. In an interview, Astrue disputed the union’s claims.
‘‘What’s really happening here is that the judges’ union doesn’t want accountability of its members and it’s been trying to sell this story to the media and to the Congress and to the agency for a very long time,’’ Astrue said. ‘‘And no one’s buying it because it’s not true, and no federal judge is going to buy this story, either.’’
‘‘There are a very small number of malcontents who want to litigate or put political pressure on the agency rather than do their work,’’ Astrue said.
The union represents 1,400 administrative law judges. The judges are hired by the agency but are supposed to act independently when they decide cases.
More than 30 federal agencies employ administrative law judges, mainly to settle disputes between the agencies and people who are affected by agency decisions.