I-2-5-69.Using the Internet as a Source of Information in Case Adjudication

Last Update: 8/30/13 (Transmittal I-2-95)

A. Introduction

Generally, when adjudicating a claim, an administrative law judge (ALJ) and other hearing office staff may not rely on information from the Internet that has not been corroborated by a Cooperative Disability Investigations Unit (CDIU). Further, entering an individual's personally identifiable information (PII) in an Internet search engine or social media network may compromise the confidentiality of PII. The responsibility to protect PII within an ALJ's or employee's control applies at all times, regardless of whether the individual is at an official duty station, another official work location, an alternate duty station, or off duty. This policy applies whether the individual is using a computer or personal device such as a smartphone.

B. Internet Sites and Social Media Networks

Adjudicators and hearing office staff must not use Internet sites and social media networks to obtain information about claimants to adjudicate cases. If the information was entered into the record by a Social Security Administration (SSA) or state agency employee at the initial or reconsideration level, the adjudicator will not consider or exhibit the evidence.

However, adjudicators will consider information from Internet sites or social media networks in the following situations:

  • If information from an Internet site or social media network has been corroborated by the CDIU and associated with the record, adjudicators will consider that information when adjudicating the case, as explained in Hearings, Appeals and Litigation Law (HALLEX) manual I-2-5-69 B.2. in this section.

  • If the information was submitted by the claimant or an appointed representative, the adjudicator will consider the evidence when adjudicating the case.

1. Credibility Assessments

Documenting a credibility finding is necessary to show that the claimant received a full and fair review of his or her claim, and that the ALJ made a well-reasoned decision. An ALJ cannot make a credibility finding based on intangible assumptions or intuition. The ALJ must consider the entire case record, ground the reasons for a credibility finding in the evidence, and articulate the reasons in the decision. The ALJ may consider observations about the claimant recorded by Disability Determination Services (DDS) and SSA employees during interviews, whether in person or by telephone. When the claimant attends a hearing, the ALJ may consider his or her own observations of the individual as part of the overall evaluation of credibility.

ALJs must not use information from Internet sites and social media networks when determining disability, unless it has been corroborated by the CDIU or was submitted by the claimant or an appointed representative as evidence. Further, an ALJ must not instigate an independent investigation to determine the validity of a statement made on the Internet.

Rather, ALJs must apply the factors in 20 CFR 404.1529 and 416.929, as well as the principles in Social Security Ruling 96-7p regarding the credibility of an individual's statements about the intensity, persistence, or functionally limiting effects of pain or other symptoms. The decision must include specific reasons for the credibility finding and be supported by the evidence in the case record. In addition, the decision must be sufficiently specific to make clear to the claimant, and any subsequent reviewers, the weight the adjudicator gave to the claimant's statements and the reasons for that weight.

However, if a Report of Investigation (ROI) in the file contains evidence obtained from an Internet site or social media network, and a CDIU corroborated that evidence, the ALJ must consider this information along with the other evidence in the file when making a credibility assessment.

2. Suspected Fraud

If an ALJ becomes aware of a potential fraud situation, he or she must report the suspected fraud following established procedures, per the instructions found in HALLEX I-1-3.

If the evidence in the file supports an allowance, but relates to suspicious allegations that are part of a fraud investigation, the ALJ must not make a decision on the case until he or she receives notification from CDIU to continue processing the case.

The primary mission of CDIUs is to obtain factual evidence that can resolve questions of fraud in SSA's disability program before benefits are paid. CDIUs often use Internet sites or social media networks as a starting point for their investigations. However, they corroborate information on which they rely and do not base their findings on uncorroborated information. If the CDIU completes an investigation and prepares an ROI, adjudicators and reviewers must use the corroborated evidence found in the ROI to assess potential fraud or similar fault. When using an ROI to assess potential fraud or similar fault, the role of the ROI is to allow the DDS or other adjudicator to disregard questionable evidence, when warranted. Adjudicators and reviewers must consider all evidence in the case record before determining whether to disregard specific evidence.

C. Verifying Inmate Information on the Internet

SSA must make sure that any website accessed for inmate information is not protected by privacy and disclosure laws, and that the website administrator does not charge a fee for accessing information on the website. Each website that SSA visits for prisoner information must provide reliable and current information on its inmate population. The website must also have the information displayed in a clear and readable format that is unlikely to result in misinterpretation of any of its content or an incorrect conclusion about a claimant's identity or inmate status.

SSA has designated regional prisoner coordinators (RPC) who identify websites that are accurate and reliable, as noted in Program Operations Manual System (POMS) GN 02607.680C. An RPC supplies information for the prisoner Internet website page available through the regional office's Intranet site, which provides addresses for the approved correctional and mental institution websites broken down by State in each of the corresponding regions. The Philadelphia region's Intranet site, located at http://phapps.ph.ssa.gov/prisoninformation/, includes links to approved Internet sites for prison facilities throughout the country.

NOTE:

While it is acceptable to verify inmate information on the Internet, it is not acceptable for an ALJ to instigate an independent investigation of a claimant's criminal history on the Internet.

For procedures on using the Internet as a third-party source of inmate verification, see POMS GN 02607.680D.

For alternative methods of verifying or obtaining inmate information, see POMS GN 02607.680B.