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Letter: Social Security judge under fire granted power to decide

By   /   December 19, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 49 of 61 in the series Deadly Delays

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.

Watchdog.org file photo

HIS CALL: More than a month after sexual harassment allegations came to light, a Social Security administrative law judge was allowed to decide whether to remain on a case.

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.

RELATED: Attorney seeks appeal of decisions by Social Security judge accused of ‘sexy’ comments

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.

Part of 61 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’
  59. Social Security whistleblower calls out agency, media in receiving award from journalists
  60. SSA whistleblowers ask, where’s the justice?
  61. Probes into troubled Social Security offices crawling along

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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.