What does a disability lawyer do?
Although a claimant is not legally required to hire a disability lawyer, often a disability lawyer can improve a claimant’s chances of winning benefits at every step in the disability process. Let’s take a look at some of the services a disability lawyer can provide at each step.
Filing an initial claim
Disability lawyers provide different levels of service at the initial application stage. While some disability lawyers will help complete an SSI or SSDI application, other lawyers may not get involved until the claim has been denied. Generally, however, a lawyer will answer questions about the application process and make sure the claimant has a complete understanding about what the SSA requires to award benefits. Before you hire a lawyer make sure you understand the level of service they will provide.
Filing a reconsideration after the initial application is denied
Most claimants do not contact a disability lawyer until they have received their first denial. If you contact a lawyer after your initial application has been denied they will review your denial letter, review your medical information, and complete the first appeal request, referred to as the reconsideration.
(Note, in some states the reconsideration appeal has been eliminated, and the first appeal is a hearing request. In these states, your lawyer can help request the administrative hearing.)
Filing a request for an administrative hearing
Most disability cases are won at the hearing level. If your disability case is denied at the initial application level and again at reconsideration level, your disability lawyer will request an administrative hearing before an Administrative Law Judge.
Assuming you have just hired the lawyer, they will work with you to gather all of your relevant medical evidence, review your medical records, and ensure you have sufficient medical evidence to win your case. In some cases, your disability lawyer may request that you attend specific medical appoints or request additional medical statements from your doctors which clearly outline your limitations to work. All the information is consolidated and prepped prior to the administrative hearing.
Communicate with the Social Security Administration
Although your Social Security lawyer cannot move your application to the front of the SSA line for immediate evaluation, they can remain in contact with the SSA throughout the evaluation process to ensure you are getting the best service possible. Because there are millions of disability applications processed each year, sometimes it is beneficial to have a disability lawyer contact the SSA periodically to ensure a SSDI or SSI application is moving through the application and determination process.
Represent a claimant at the Administrative Hearing
Unfortunately, most disability applications are denied several times before they are approved. Most disability applicants contact a disability lawyer after they have been denied and have decided to appeal their claim and file a request for an administrative hearing.
The good news is a majority of the disability claims are won at the hearing level, making this a critical step in the disability process. A disability hearing is the first time a claimant will have the opportunity to plead their disability case in front of a person who is able to award benefits. A disability hearing can be stressful and intimidating for claimant’s who are not prepared.
Fortunately, disability lawyers are trained professionals who have the skill and knowledge to represent claimants in court. Not only can they answer your questions, they will argue your claim in court and ask critical questions during cross-examination from all of the witnesses, including the vocational and medical experts.
File an appeal request with the Appeals Council
Unfortunately, not all disability applicants win SSDI or SSI benefits, even after an administrative hearing. If you have had your benefits denied at the hearing level the next appeal step within the Social Security appeals process is to file a claim with the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council has several options: review the claim and make a decision, refuse to review the claim, or remand the case back to the Administrative Law Judge for another review.
If you have hired a disability lawyer, they may decide the best course of action is to request another appeal to the Appeals Council. If the Appeals Council refuses to review the case or they review the case and deny the claim again, you can file a civil action in U.S. federal district court.
Currently, relatively few Social Security appeals are filed in district court. Under some conditions, it may make sense to file a civil case, but in other cases, a disability lawyer may suggest it would be better to file a new claim. The right course of action varies by case and should be discussed with your disability lawyer.
Why would a disability lawyer not take your case?
Many disability claimants have asked why a disability lawyer would not take their case. Unlike many types of legal claims, a disability lawyer will only get paid if they win your claim and there are back pay benefits. For this reason, many disability lawyers will refuse to represent a claimant if they do not believe they have a strong chance of winning. Other reasons they may refuse to take your case include the following:
- The claimant does not meet the nonmedical requirements for benefits. For example, if you are currently working too many hours and making too much money, you do not have work credits for SSDI benefits, you are currently collecting unemployment benefits (may be allowed in some cases), or your condition is not expected to last for 12 continuous months, a lawyer may refuse to take your case.
- The claimant has failed to get consistent medical treatment or has failed to follow a doctor’s prescribed treatment plan. Although some claimant’s may have a strong case and simply lack access to health insurance, other claimant’s express an unwillingness to do what is necessary to get the needed treatment. This can be a red flag to disability lawyers.
- The claimant is untrustworthy or engaging in other negative behaviors. Common reasons a lawyer may refuse to accept a claimant’s case can include dishonesty, malingering, alcohol or drug abuse (especially if they are not currently receiving treatment), and other negative actions such as combativeness or rude behavior.
- The claimant is too young. Although some younger claimants may have a severe condition, such as advanced cancer or ALS, other claimants will have a very difficult time proving they cannot perform sedentary work.
- The claimant calls too close to the date of the hearing or appeal deadline. A claimant has 60 days from the date of a denial to file an appeal. If a claimant waits too long to contact a disability lawyer, the lawyer will not have time to collect evidence of the disability, prepare the argument for the case, and attend the administrative hearing.
- The claimant has fired their previous disability lawyer. There may have been good reason why you had to fire your previous disability lawyer. If this is the case, you need to discuss it with your new disability lawyer.
- The claimant is only applying for SSI benefits. SSI back pay benefits are limited and generally will not be as high as SSDI payments. For this reason, many disability lawyers will refuse to take an SSI claim because the percentage of their potential payout is small.
- The claimant has not been denied SSDI or SSI benefits. Some disability lawyers will only accept a new disability case after the claimant has been denied. This does not necessarily mean that you do not have a strong case. It may only mean that you need to find a different lawyer who will represent you at every stages of the disability process.
If several disability lawyers refuse to take your case it’s important to find out the reason. In some cases, you may be able to modify your behavior or take action to strengthen your case. In other cases, you may need to accept the fact you do not have a case which can be won.
When do I not need to hire a disability lawyer?
Disability claimants do not have to hire a disability lawyer. In fact, not all claimants should hire a disability lawyer. For example, you may not need a disability lawyer if you have a condition on the SSA Listing of Impairments and you have studied and understand the disability process, and you have sufficient time to work through the process on your own.
Additionally, there are also claimants who have conditions which are so severe that they will automatically be approved for benefits, assuming they meet the nonmedical requirements for SSI or SSDI. These conditions can be found on the SSA Compassionate Allowance listing. Conditions on this list include adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma, adult onset Huntington Disease, Alpers Disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), Batten Disease, etc. If you have one of these conditions, contact the SSA and determine how to process your own claim.
Finally, if you have already filed your initial disability application and you are waiting for the approval or denial letter, you should generally wait to hire a disability lawyer. In some cases, you may be approved the first time you apply, and you will not need a lawyer. If you are denied, you should contact a disability lawyer as soon as possible.