MADISON, Wis. – The Social Security judge accused of sexual harassment and deciding disability claims on how attractive he thought the claimant before him was, once demanded the construction of $65,000 expanded bathrooms at the expense of his fellow Madison office staff members.
Administrative Law Judge John Pleuss pestered Social Security Administration Region 5 officials to build the expanded bathrooms for administrative law judges even as case workers and other staff members in the Madison Office of Disability Adjudication and Review missed out on annual bonuses because of the 2013 federal budget sequestration, according to emails obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog.
“Also, I have it on good authority that there will be no bonuses for any of the staff members this year,” wrote Madison Administrative Law Judge Joseph Jacobson in a May, 15, 2013, email to his colleagues.
“I think there will be some hard feelings if they don’t get bonuses yet the judges get to build their bathrooms,” Jacobson added, in an email arguing against Pleuss’ seemingly relentless campaign for the expanded ALJ bathrooms.
Indeed there were lots of hard feelings from staff members who were not only squeezed out of bonuses but literally squeezed out of needed space because of Pleuss’ bathroom obsession.
As Jacobson noted in the email, the expanded bathrooms would – and eventually did – significantly reduce the reception area. The designs turned the space into a small room, rather than an open space, Jacobson wrote.
“We measured the other day and found that the mail/sign in area won’t fit in there anymore, nor will the copy machine. These items will have to be moved into the ALJ hallway, which is the only area wide enough to house them,” Jacobson wrote.
“This will certainly impact the receptionist’s duties as she will have to leave the area to make copies and sort mail, which will probably mean another employee will have to cover for her during these times,” the judge added.
Pleuss was well within his rights to demand the expanded bathrooms, according to internal communications.
As he noted in defending his effort, SSA Region 5, headquartered in Chicago, agreed that there “should be bathrooms with two stalls each in the northwest corner of the office in June 2010,” before the Madison office opened.
“This agreement was based on official agency policy concerning the number of restroom facilities for the number of employees,” Pleuss wrote to his colleagues in a June 2013 email.
The office, located on Madison’s Beltline Highway, was originally built and leased to the agency without the specified bathrooms. Emails show the agency promised to expand the bathrooms upon further buildouts. That did not happen. Pleuss filed a grievance demanding more stalls, the agency resisted, until finally the union got involved and the administrative law judge won.
Jacobson noted that one can lose while winning.
“First, I do understand the importance of holding management’s feet to the fire when it comes to agreements they’ve made with the unions. In this case they screwed up by not providing the number of bathroom stalls that were agreed to. It appears they’ve admitted to that (not altogether willingly) and are ready to fix the problem. In essence, they’ve been ‘called out,’ beaten by the union, and now must fix the problem,” Jacobson wrote.
“However, I also believe that even if you have a legal right to something (as we do here), you don’t necessarily have to exercise that right. Granted, the bathrooms aren’t optimal and sometimes the situation can be annoying, but I just don’t feel it’s a good use of government money to change something that’s adequate but suboptimal, especially in difficult economic times.”
In a tone deaf defense, Pleuss said the expanded bathrooms would be a blessing.
“The expanded bathrooms will benefit all employees in the office, especially those who are involved in hearings, want to use the restrooms quickly between hearings, and don’t want to encounter claimants or representatives on their way,” the judge wrote.
He said he regretted staff “misgivings” about his demands.
Emails also show Pleuss demanded, and received, permission to move the adjudicators’ bench a couple of feet because he didn’t like how he was perched in front of claimants. The request cost taxpayers $12,000, according to internal communications.
Pleuss’ bathroom battle is one of many examples of an administrative law judge who often acted as if he were above the rules and frequently demanded special privileges, according to Social Security Administration sources. He was ill-mannered and behaved like a “jerk” to many at the Madison office, multiple sources told Watchdog.
More so, Pleuss is accused of mishandling personally identifiable information of claimants, demanding special treatment for his wife, a hearing monitor at the office, and of poor professional performance.
Pleuss retired at the end of 2016 under a cloud of scandal.
As Wisconsin Watchdog first reported in its series, “Deadly Delays,” Pleuss is accused of sexually harassing staff members and writing inappropriate comments about claimants seeking Social Security disability benefits.
Pleuss, in his case files, described claimants as “attractive,” innocent-looking, “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, and parenthetically he added,“(actually a gorilla-like appearance).”
In one document, Pleuss wrote, “I’ll pay this lady when hell freezes over!”
In another of Pleuss’ “writing instructions” to his legal assistants, the judge approved a female claimant’s appeal for disability payments, calling her “credible.” He also noted “she looks like she was ‘rode hard and put away wet.’”
Pleuss and managers at the Madison ODAR facility have been at the center of multiple federal investigations following allegations of widespread corruption, misconduct and retaliation. Sources say SSA’s Office of the Inspector General is compiling both administrative and criminal investigative reports.
Internal communications also accuse Pleuss of compromising claimant personal information.
“Just a reminder to make sure that any evidence that you have copied or notes that you have made or ANYTHING with a claimant’s name or SSN on them be put in the Large Shredding bins around the office and NOT the blue Recycle bins (if you are concerned about recycling, rest assured that the paper in the shredding bins is recycled after having been shredded,” wrote former Chief Administrative Law Judge Tom Springer in a February 2014 email. “I send this reminder because one of ‘us’ put a good sized pile of paper in a Recycle bin instead of a shredding bin last week and one of the employees noticed it and pulled it out.”
A follow-up email named Pleuss as the guilty party. The email noted that claimants’ Social Security numbers and other confidential information, in Pleuss’ handwriting, were easily observable on top of the recycling bin.
Pleuss’ productivity had long been in question. In a region report on the Madison office’s “Strengths and Challenges,” Pleuss’ performance was listed as a challenge. For instance, in fiscal 2014, Pleuss issued the smallest average number of dispositions per day, by far. And he was projected to issue the fewest number of decisions, again by far.
Social Security Administration sources say Pleuss constantly pulled down the Madison office’s performance numbers.
Pleuss has not returned multiple requests for comment. An Social Security Administration spokesman repeatedly has said the agency cannot discuss personnel matters.
One source described Pleuss as a “prima donna who threw temper tantrums and tried to get staff members fired because they would stand up to him.”
“It wasn’t just the sexual stuff. This really was about his abuse of power,” the source said.
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