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Social Security judge investigated for harassment heading back to hearings

By   /   August 4, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 24 of 58 in the series Deadly Delays

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.

RELATED: Documents: Social Security judge wrote claimant was ‘rode hard and put away wet’

Photo from PBS.org

STATUS QUO?: A Social Security administrative law judge accused of harassing employees and other misconduct is back on the hearing schedule, according to a new document obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog.

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.

Part of 58 in the series Deadly Delays
  1. Deadly Delay: Whistleblower alleges misconduct, incompetence in Social Security office
  2. Johnson seeks answers to Social Security whistleblower’s charges
  3. Social Security disability program has plenty of problems elsewhere
  4. Social Security whistleblower placed on administrative leave
  5. Social Security disability agency has history of punishing whistleblowers
  6. Senator to Social Security Administration official: ‘I would say the system is rigged’
  7. Whistleblower: ‘I want to do my work without fear of retaliation’
  8. Social Security whistleblowers ‘coming out of the woodwork’
  9. Social Security whistleblower suspended after going public with complaints
  10. Social Security whistleblower questioned by investigators after going public
  11. Social Security whistleblower now faces firing
  12. Social Security officials not answering questions about whistleblower retaliation
  13. ‘Culture of corruption and cover-up’ alleged in Madison Social Security office
  14. Ron Johnson: We’re tracking down abuse allegations in Social Security agency
  15. Senate committee presses for answers from troubled Social Security Administration
  16. Sources: Social Security judge suspended in wake of Madison scandal
  17. Attorney seeks appeal of decisions by Social Security judge accused of ‘sexy’ comments
  18. Social Security appeals judge pleads guilty to retaliation charge
  19. More retaliation despite investigation, Social Security office sources say
  20. Openly gay whistleblower at Social Security office claims intimidation, retaliation
  21. Wheels of justice turn frustratingly slow for Social Security whistleblowers
  22. Baldwin joins Johnson in calling for ‘immediate action’ on Social Security misconduct claims
  23. Documents: Social Security judge wrote claimant was ‘rode hard and put away wet’
  24. Social Security judge investigated for harassment heading back to hearings
  25. Social Security judge accused of misconduct refuses to step aside, sources say
  26. Whistleblower at scandal-plagued Social Security office seeks restraining order against manager
  27. Whistleblower report alleges widespread waste, fraud, abuse at Social Security office
  28. Sen. Johnson to Social Security commissioner: Retaliation will not be tolerated
  29. Baldwin warns Social Security Administration not to retaliate
  30. Social Security Administration fires whistleblower
  31. Who is protecting Social Security whistleblowers?
  32. Sources: Social Security judge accused of racial, sexual remarks removed from hearings
  33. Social Security office director removed from Madison facility, sources say
  34. Senate committee probe into Social Security whistleblower retaliation continues
  35. Madison Social Security office like ‘giant dysfunctional family,’ source says
  36. Damage spreads at scandal-plagued Social Security office
  37. Fired Social Security whistleblower gets no help from federal whistleblower protector
  38. One month later, Social Security whistleblower still without job, pay, answers
  39. Federal agents stepping up investigation into troubled Social Security offices
  40. Investigation into troubled Social Security offices in a ‘holding pattern’
  41. Recent weeks bring shake-up at scandal-plagued Social Security offices
  42. Top judges resign at troubled Social Security Chicago headquarters
  43. Social Security chief judge retiring amid cloud of scandal
  44. Troubled Social Security disability claims agency promotes ‘positive organization culture’
  45. Senate inquiry into scandal-plagued Social Security offices plods along
  46. Social Security whistleblower: ‘Everything has been compromised’
  47. Sources: Social Security judge accused of sexual harassment removed from Madison office
  48. Fired Social Security whistleblower won’t be taking whistleblower protection training
  49. Letter: Social Security judge under fire granted power to decide
  50. Sources: Social Security judge accused of deciding cases on sex appeal retires
  51. Johnson seeks GAO review of alleged Social Security ‘shell game’
  52. Social Security judge demanded $65,000 expanded bathrooms
  53. Investigation finds abuse, law-breaking, no retaliation at Madison Social Security office
  54. Report: Social Security managers gambled, watched Packers at Lambeau on taxpayer dime
  55. Inspector General releases major findings of probe into troubled Social Security office
  56. Social Security whistleblower waiting for answers in privacy breach case
  57. A whistleblower’s story: Paying the price for shining a light
  58. Fired SSA employee featured in Watchdog investigation is ‘Whistleblower of the Year’

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M.D. Kittle is bureau chief of Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment Reporter for Watchdog.org. Kittle is a 25-year veteran of print, broadcast and online media. He is the recipient of several awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, and others. He is also a member of Investigative Reporters & Editors. Kittle's extensive series on Wisconsin's unconstitutional John Doe investigations was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck's TheBlaze. His work has been featured in Town Hall, Fox News, NewsMax, and other national publications, and his reporting has been cited by news outlets nationwide. Kittle is a fill-in talk show host on the Jay Weber Show and the Vicki McKenna Show in Milwaukee and Madison.