MADISON, Wis. — At the scandal-plagued Social Security Administration, you can apparently write that disability claimants are “buxom” or they look like they were “rode hard and put away wet” and not run the risk of discipline.
At least that’s the case for John Pleuss, administrative law judge at SSA’s Madison Office of Disability Adjudication and Review.
Pleuss, now under investigation on allegations he sexually harassed staff and made many inappropriate comments about claimants, is quietly being moved back in the hearing rotation, according to documents obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog.
An ODAR hearing schedule shows Pleuss presiding over disability review cases again in September. The embattled judge had been missing from the hearing list in the wake of the scandal surrounding him.
“They seem to be keeping this very quiet,” said an internal source with information regarding the matter.
This week, Wisconsin Watchdog obtained new “writing obstructions” penned by Pleuss to his legal assistants. In the directives, Pleuss notes he is approving the female claimant’s appeal for disability payments, calling her “credible.” He also goes on to write “she looks like she was ‘rode hard and put away wet.’”
Pleuss is accused of making his rulings based on the physical attractiveness of claimants.
As Wisconsin Watchdog first reported in June, Pleuss in his notes to legal assistants described claimants as “attractive,” “innocent-looking,” “buxom.” In one case, he noted a “young, white (woman)”appearing before him “looks like a man.”
“Obese, young, white (female) skimpy black top,” he wrote of another claimant.
“Very black, African looking (female),” the judge wrote, and parenthetically he added,“(actually a gorilla-like appearance).”
Even as SSA’s Office of Inspector General conducts an investigation of misconduct, corruption, harassment and retaliation in the Madison and Milwaukee offices, and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee holds an inquiry into ODAR manager conduct, the schedule shows Pleuss set to hear 35 cases in September.
On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, wrote to OIG acting Inspector General Gale Stallworth Stone. The letter included supplemental evidence of “this ALJ’s abhorrent language when describing a female claimant that was recently shared with me by an employee at the Madison ODAR.”
Baldwin said she first contacted the SSA’s Office of Inspector General on Feb. 8 on behalf of a constituent employed at the Madison office. That employee filed a formal complaint on the OIG’s fraud hotline in September 2015 related to concerns of “internal corruption, waste, harassment and witness intimidation by an ALJ, and a complete deterioration of the work environment.”
On July 20, Baldwin wrote to SSA acting Commissioner Carolyn W. Colvin requesting “immediate action to be taken to address allegations of misconduct” at the Madison ODAR. She raised particular concerns about “overtly racist and sexist descriptions of claimants and other allegations of misconduct.”
“It is imperative that the Madison ODAR is a safe work environment, free from inappropriate behavior, that provides the highest-quality service to my constituents,” Baldwin wrote to the acting inspector general.
Doug Nguyen, communications director for the Social Security Administration’s Chicago Region, did not respond to Wisconsin Watchdog’s request for comment.
Meanwhile, Social Security Administration management repeatedly has denied reasonable accommodations, including work-at-home privileges for Celia Machelle Keller, one of several whistleblowers to bring complaints against ODAR.
Keller’s physician recently advised ODAR management to allow Keller to work at home five days a week. The doctor said Keller’s health has been deteriorating because of the stress she has confronted in her workplace.
“Celia Machelle Keller is a patient in my care for migraine headaches. Prior to this year, her migraines were relatively infrequent and manageable,” the physician wrote in a letter to Keller’s supervisors. “The last 5-6 months, migraines have increased dramatically in frequency. Stress at work is a major contributing factor to the sudden worsening in migraines. Migraines are consistently triggered by her workplace environment.”
The physician advised that “minimal exposure” to Keller’s workplace environment is the best medicine, reducing her migraines and improving productivity.
Despite all that Keller has been through, the lead case technician remains among the most productive employees at the Madison office. Keller has personally prepared 255 cases for hearing since March 6, according to internal documents. The other lead case tech has completed two cases during the same time period. That employee, according to sources, is in the inner circle with Hearing Office Director Laura Hodorowicz, who is accused of offering incentives to employees who loyally stand by her side — and to those who keep their mouths shut.
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