Bringing Transparency to Administrative Law Judge Dockets

The deputy secretary of Labor explains how the department is using data to improve operations and allocate resources.

“Information is data endowed with relevance and purpose.” So noted management guru Peter Drucker, writing in the Harvard Business Review. At the Labor Department, we have worked to understand the data generated by our organization. We also have worked to understand where there are holes in the existing data. Uncovering these gaps and understanding the data helps provide the management information necessary for effective operations. 

The Department enforces more than 180 federal employment laws. Many of these laws have provisions providing that the Department’s Office of Administrative Law Judges (OALJ) shall handle disputes that arise under them. The OALJ is the administrative trial court for the Department. Its 42 judges handle approximately 5,500 cases a year and the office currently has around 7,000 cases pending. In May, OALJ was directed to start providing quarterly reports on various metrics related to their case processing to the Office of the Secretary. This direction was made to help support the department’s effective operational and resource management while at the same time respecting the independence of the OALJ. 

The OALJ is an important part of the Labor Department. The integrity of many of our programs depends on the good work of this office. ALJs are entrusted with significant authority when conducting proceedings under the laws Labor enforces. 

The reports to be provided are based on those that are required for Article III federal courts. In 1990, an overwhelmingly bipartisan Congress passed the Judicial Improvements Act. The Act, among other things, created a reporting obligation for federal courts on the number of motions that have been pending for more than six months, the number of bench trials submitted for more than six months, and the number of cases that have been pending for more than three years. Passage of the Act has given the public a better window into how well the courts are operating. 

There is also little doubt that reporting is a gentle nudge that keeps judges aware of older items on their dockets. This is important because federal judges “hold their Offices during good Behaviour,” i.e., essentially their lifetime, and are not subject to performance reviews. 

Unlike Article III judges, most of the employees in the Executive Branch have their performance evaluated at the end of the fiscal year. They are on performance standards that measure their effectiveness. Not so for ALJs. The Civil Service Regulations provide that “an agency may not rate the job performance of an administrative law judge.” As such, they are similar to Article III judges in that they are exempt from performance reviews. 

Having now received three quarterly reports, the initial indications are positive. The inventory of cases that are over two and three years old has decreased. In the second quarter of Fiscal Year 2020 there were 1,162 cases that were over two years old. That dropped to 979 at the end of the fourth quarter. For cases over three years old the number dropped from 556 to 407.  

The OALJ continues to handle dispositive motions almost always within six months. In the latest report there was only one instance where a motion was pending for longer than six months. There were eight at the end of the previous quarter. The number of cases pending for more than six months after the record has closed decreased as well, to 798, down from 875 in the previous quarter. 

The transparency provided by the reports serves the twin purposes of giving the public a better window into how well we are operating and also provides department’s leaders with management information to enable appropriate resource allocation. We believe Drucker would approve. 

At the Labor Department we have striven to make continuous improvement a core principle of how we operate. Our efforts in this area are showing positive returns and we look forward to even greater returns when the improvements we have implemented, such as the transparency provided by these quarterly reports, show their full effect. 

Patrick Pizzella is the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Labor.

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