MADISON, Wis. – An attorney who represents Social Security disability claimants tells Wisconsin Watchdog he will appeal any adverse decision by Administrative Law Judge John Pleuss, who has been accused of deciding cases based on” how sexy he thought the claimant was.”
The attorney, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of his professional relationship with the judges and staff in the Madison Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR), said he first began hearing reports about Pleuss’ conduct several months ago. That’s when the attorney said he began monitoring the outcome of the disability appeals hearings.
“I have had a standing policy to appeal any decision of ALJ Pleuss because of my concerns for his lack of impartiality,” the attorney said.
ODAR insiders have accused Pleuss of sexually harassing staff members and claimants. One source told Wisconsin Watchdog there is a “culture of corruption and cover-up” at the Madison office, and it “goes all the way to the top.”
Wisconsin Watchdog has obtained hand-written internal documents showing what employees have described as “highly inappropriate” comments Pleuss has made about claimants appearing before him.
“Young, white (female); attractive brunette,” Pleuss wrote under “Initial Observations” in official hearing notes. The claimants’ names and other personal information have been redacted.
“Young, white (female); long brown hair; attractive; looks innocent,” the ALJ wrote.
He described another claimant as “buxom,” and noted that a “young, white (woman) looks like a man.”
“Obese, young, white (female) skimpy black top,” he wrote of another claimant.
“Very black, African looking (female),” the ALJ wrote, and parenthetically he added,“(actually a gorilla-like appearance).”
In one document, Pleuss wrote, “I’ll pay this lady when hell freezes over!”
The employee who spoke to Wisconsin Watchdog on condition of anonymity said Pleuss has acquired a reputation as “being sexually inappropriate.”
“It truly has become a national running joke,” the staff member said.
But there is nothing funny about the charge by those familiar with the administrative law judge and the “toxic environment” of the Madison office, that Pleuss has approved or rejected disability claims based on “how sexy he thought the claimant was,” the employee said.
The ODAR official claims “sexual harassment of staff is pervasive and ongoing” in the Madison office. Other sources have told Wisconsin Watchdog as much.
Sources say the problem also involves race.
Pleuss often notes race in the hand-written case notes Wisconsin Watchdog has obtained.
The attorney who voiced concerns about Pleuss’ rulings said he has seen Hmong claimants treated especially bad by the administrative law judge.
“I found him condescending and rude to Hmong claimants,” the source said. “I’m pretty sure that I never had a favorable decision from him on behalf of a Hmong person.”
In one case, the attorney claims Pleuss “tested” a Hmong claimant on whether the applicant could speak English.
“He was giving instructions to my client in English. I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said he was giving instructions. I said, ‘My client doesn’t speak English.’ He said, ‘Oh, sure. I bet.’ He was going to try to trick them to see if they spoke English,” the attorney said.
An official with the Hmong-American Partnership in Appleton said she had not heard the allegation, but said the director would be interested in learning more.
The attorney said he has seen the judge deny cases he thought had a strong foundation, and “weak” cases approved.
“This issue may explain a lot about that inconsistency,” the attorney said. “I will now be able to raise issues involving females. It should be interesting since I will be asking for copies of his notes on every denial. I’m sure that request will be denied and I may end up asking Federal District Courts to issue orders for the release of the documents.”
Pleuss runs nearly even in his approval-versus-denial record, according to the Social Security Administration.
In fiscal year 2014, the administrative law judge approved 43 percent of his cases, and denied 40 percent. The remaining 17 percent were dismissed. A “dismissal” is when SSA turns down an application, after the claimant appeals, without deciding whether the claimant is disabled. That often happens when an individual does not appear for a hearing.
In six-plus years, Pleuss has approved 42 percent of the disability appeals cases before him, and denied 41 percent. He has dismissed a total of 17 percent.
Madison ODAR Chief Administrative Law Judge Debra Meachum, for instance, has an approval rate of 63 percent, while denying 20 percent of the cases. Meachum has dismissed 17 percent.
Madison’s overall rate is 52 percent approved, 29 percent denied.
Doug Nguyen, spokesman for SSA’s Chicago Regional Office, has declined to comment on what he said are personnel issues.
“Although we are precluded by the Privacy Act from discussing employment issues regarding specific employees, SSA takes seriously its responsibility to abide by federal law, including that which protects whistleblowers from retaliation and all employees from discrimination,” the communications director said.
‘Covering for him for years’
An ODAR official with knowledge of the situation told Wisconsin Watchdog on Monday that “employees have been bringing the concerns about Judge Pleuss’ sexually inappropriate comments to light for approximately the last decade.”
The source, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, said Madison ODAR Office Director Laura Hodorowicz and Chicago Regional Attorney Deborah Giesen “have been covering for him for years.”
Office Supervisor “Wayne Gentz has been covering for Pleuss ever since Laura hired Wayne’s wife to work in the Madison office,” the source said.
“I am very glad to hear that the claimants might receive an opportunity to have their claims decided on the merits of the case. Finally, the claimants, representatives, and taxpayers know the truth,” the ODAR official added.
As Wisconsin Watchdog reported last week, sources said Pleuss was either suspended or placed on administrative leave in advance of an SSA Office of Inspector General investigation and audit of the Madison office scheduled for this week.
Pleuss was not in the office last week, according to multiple sources, and Hodorowicz was on leave.
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