Forbes-Schmitt ’92 Advances to Administrative Law Judge
Nicole Forbes-Schmitt ’92 did not expect to start her position as an administrative law judge (ALJ) the way she did.
Slated to start in April 2008, she was sworn in on a Monday for her new position. On Tuesday, Forbes-Schmitt, who was then seven months pregnant, learned she would be put on immediate bed rest. “I was at my dream job for exactly one day,” she said.
After giving birth four weeks later and taking an additional six weeks off for maternity leave, she returned to her position as a full-time judge in the end of the June of the same year. Forbes-Schmitt continues as an ALJ for the Social Security Administration in Charleston, S.C.
She was set on her path to become a judge when she took a business law class as an undergraduate senior at Ohio State. “My intention was to work in the field of international business. But I was hooked with that one business law class,” she said. “I applied really late in the game for law school, but I squeaked into Ohio State at the last possible minute.”
Originally from Kingston, Jamaica, her family migrated to Fort Wayne, Ind., when she was 10 years old because the American company her father worked for transferred him to the U.S. in 1978.
After seven years at Ohio State and one particularly snow-heavy winter, Forbes-Schmitt moved to the warm weather of Miami and passed the Florida bar in 1992. However, she did not immediately get the chance to work as an attorney. Forbes-Schmitt was living with her parents in Florida when their house was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew. After helping her parents with the clean up and paperwork involved with the insurance company, she was only too happy to move back to Columbus, Ohio.
After passing the Ohio Bar in 1994, she finally began her career as an attorney for now-defunct Hyatt Legal Services. Later, she worked at Barkan Neff Handelman Meizlish, LLP as a social security attorney in Columbus before transferring to their New Orleans office where she worked for two years.
Forbes-Schmitt started working for the Social Security Administration, Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR), in New Orleans as an attorney advisor in November of 1997. At ODAR, her duties consisted of rendering advice and assistance to ALJs, performing legal research and drafting decisions for ALJs in extremely sensitive and legally complex disability cases. After an extended detail in Falls Church, Virginia, Forbes-Schmitt transferred to the Miami ODAR where she was promoted to the position of senior attorney advisor in 2006. She decided to begin the long process of applying to become an ALJ in 2007.
Forbes-Schmitt said that she wanted to become an ALJ after working with so many of them for so many years. “I saw good judges and bad judges; I got the desire to be one of the good judges,” she said. “It’s not an easy or glamorous job. I think one needs to possess a certain kind of ambition to even consider becoming a judge and taking on that kind of extraordinary responsibility.”
After a written test and two structured interviews in Washington, D.C., she was put on a long “certification,” or list, of potential ALJs. “I got the call that I had gotten the ALJ appointment to the Charleston, SC ODAR in early March 2008. It all happened very fast.” she said.
Between her new job as administrative law judge, being a wife, raising a teenage step-daughter, moving to Charleston having a baby and buying a new house, she has had a hectic year. “It’s been a really wild ride with everything happening at once, but I don’t have a single regret.” she said.
Her day-to-day life as an ALJ is filled with reviewing case files for hearings, holding hearings, writing decisions and working on post-hearing instructions. With six hearings every other day, Forbes-Schmitt’s new job keeps her busy. Most of the cases that come before her deal with claims for social security disability benefits and/or supplement security income (SSI). A person claiming disability needs to be denied twice before being able to request a hearing before an ALJ. Forbes-Schmitt laments that there are nearly 700,000 people currently waiting to have their claims heard and in many cases, the claimants have waited two or three years before their claims are finally heard. She and her fellow ALJs are working hard at reducing the backlog and waiting time for hearings.
“I’ve cried at my desk after reading the medical records of a person who is undeniably sick but who does not fit within the parameters of “disability” as defined by the social security rules, regulations and laws. It’s tough to deny those cases,” she said.
Regardless of how busy her job keeps her, Forbes-Schmitt said that she finds her job very rewarding. “When I do get an opportunity to grant a case for someone who has been waiting for a really long time, when someone is truly deserving and truly “disabled,” I feel like I am finally making a difference.”