MADISON, Wis. — More than a month after allegations surfaced about the grossly inappropriate conduct of a Social Security administrative law judge, the federal official remained in a position to decide whether he would continue to decide cases in question, according to an internal letter obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog.
According to multiple sources, ALJ John Pleuss has been under investigation on allegations of sexual harassment of Madison Office of Disability Adjudication and Review employees and making inappropriate comments about people who have appealed to him for Social Security benefits.
As Wisconsin Watchdog first reported in June, Pleuss, in his case files, described claimants as “attractive,” innocent-looking and “buxom.” In one case, he noted that 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 ALJ wrote, adding parenthetically, “(actually a gorilla-like appearance).”
Madison attorney Charles Kreimendahl wrote to the Madison SSA office asking that Pleuss be removed from his client’s case.
In a July 21 letter to Kreimendahl, Madison ODAR Chief Administrative Law Judge Debra Meachum responded that Pleuss himself would determine the outcome.
“Our office is in receipt of your letter dated July 14, 2016, in which you requested to have your client’s hearing scheduled with an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) other than ALJ Pleuss. This letter has been made part of the record and ALJ Pleuss will rule on this request,” Meachum wrote.
And then she sought to correct an error.
“Please disregard the letter dated July 19, 2016, from our office which states that your case has been reassigned to another ALJ since this letter was sent in error. I apologize for any confusion this may have caused,” Meachum added.
In June, another attorney who represents Social Security disability claimants told Wisconsin Watchdog he would appeal any adverse decision by Pleuss.
The attorney, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of his professional relationship with the judges at the Madison ODAR, said he first began hearing reports about Pleuss’ conduct several months before. 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.
Pleuss often notes race in the hand-written case notes Wisconsin Watchdog has obtained.
The attorney said he has seen Hmong claimants treated especially badly 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.
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.”
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.
ODAR officials with knowledge of the situation have told Wisconsin Watchdog that “employees have been bringing the concerns about Judge Pleuss’ sexually inappropriate comments to light for approximately the last decade,” with no action taken until recently.
Last month, Pleuss was escorted out of the Madison Office of Disability Adjudication and Review by armed guards, sources told Wisconsin Watchdog. Sherry Thompson, outgoing chief administrative law judge for SSA’s Region 5, arrived in Madison from Chicago headquarters shortly before Pleuss’ removal, ODAR insiders said.
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