The Appeal Process in Social Security Disability
There are four levels of administrative adjudication of Social Security claims. They are:
- The initial determination,
- Reconsideration determination,
- Hearing before an administrative law judge, and
- Review by the Appeals Council.
- After this, a case may be filed in federal court.
The time limit for all Social Security disability appeals but one is 60 days from the date of receipt of a decision. Because there is a strong presumption that decisions are received five days from the date on the face of the decision, unless there is evidence to the contrary, the effective time limit is 65 days from the date of the decision.
The only exception to the 65-day effective time limit for appeal applies to appealing an ALJ denial to the Appeals Council after there has been a federal court remand. The time limit is 30 days for these appeals.
When the period for requesting the next appellate step ends on a Saturday, Sunday, legal holiday, or any other day of which all or part is a non-workday for federal employees by statute or Executive Order, the period is extended to include the next full workday. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.3(b), 416.120(d).
The Social Security Administration (SSA) treats an appeal as filed on the day it receives it. However, SSA will use the date a “request or notice is mailed to us by the U.S. mail, if using the date we receive it would result in the loss or lessening of rights. The date shown by a U.S. postmark will be used as the date of mailing. If the postmark is unreadable, or there is no postmark, we will consider other evidence of when you mailed it to us.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.614(b)(2).
Disability Service Improvement
If you live in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, or Connecticut, the administrative appeal process changed on August 1, 2006 under the program named Disability Service Improvement (DSI), which was implemented by regulations in a new part of 20 C.F.R., Part 405. Although the original plan was to gradually extend DSI to the rest of the country, it now appears that only certain aspects of DSI will be made applicable to the rest of the United States.
DSI is designed as an experiment to see if SSA can speed up disability determination at all levels including the initial determination. Based on a predictive model, some cases are automatically referred from the field office to a state agency Quick Disability Determination unit with the goal of making a favorable determination within 20 days. 20 C.F.R. § 405.105. For all initial determinations, not only those referred to the Quick Disability Determination units, SSA will require state agencies to adopt a standard decision-writing format that “will explain in clear and understandable language the specific reasons for and the effect of the initial determination.” 20 C.F.R. § 405.115.
DSI initially replaced the reconsideration step with review by a federal reviewing official; but because of budgetary issues and long processing times, sending new cases to federal reviewing officials was suspended in early 2008, reverting to the process that was in effect in these states before DSI. Cases already assigned to federal reviewing officials were to be processed by them. It is unlikely that any new cases will be assigned to a federal reviewing official in the future.
Some DSI administrative law judge (ALJ) hearing procedures are more formal with more mandatory time limits than under current practice. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 405.301 ff.
Under DSI, the Appeals Council is replaced by a Decision Review Board, to which a claimant can appeal only an ALJ dismissal order (after requesting the ALJ to vacate the dismissal). 20 C.F.R. § 405.427. Otherwise the Decision Review Board deals only with own motion review of both denial and favorable decisions based on a statistical claimant profile. You will be notified in the notice of an ALJ decision if your case has been selected for review by the Decision Review Board. 20 C.F.R. § 405.371. If the Decision Review Board does not act within 90 days, the ALJ decision becomes final and may be appealed to federal court. 20 C.F.R. §§ 405.415 and 405.420.
Claimant appeals of ALJ denial decisions, unless the Decision Review Board takes jurisdiction, go directly to federal court. 20 C.F.R. § 405.501.
Initial and Reconsideration Determinations
Although a Social Security disability claim (but not an SSI disability claim) can be completed on the Internet at www.socialsecurity.gov/applyfordisability/adult.htm, most claimants initiate their claims by telephoning an SSA teleservice center at SSA’s toll-free number, 1-800-772-1213. Teleservice center staff will make an appointment for the claimant with an SSA representative from a local office.
If you prefer, an appointment can be made to go to a local Social Security office to complete an application in person, though most make a telephone appointment for an SSA claims representative to call back at an appointed hour. During the appointment, you will be asked basic information which will be entered into a computer application form that will be printed and, if it is a telephone interview, will be mailed to the claimant for signature, along with other forms to be completed and signed. An application for benefits is one of the few forms in a disability case that may not be signed by a lawyer on your behalf, unless that lawyer is appointed to do so by a court. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.612 and 404.613.
The prohibition on a lawyer signing an application for benefits on your behalf includes a prohibition against a lawyer “electronically signing” an application that is submitted over the Internet, although a lawyer may assist in filing an application. See https://secure.ssa.gov/apps6z/ISBA/main.html.
At the initial and reconsideration levels the SSA does not make medical determinations of disability. Instead, claims are referred to an agency of the state government that has a contract with SSA for determining disability. At the state agency usually a medical doctor and a layman, called a disability examiner, evaluate the claim, though SSA has been experimenting in pilot projects with having disability examiners make uncomplicated decisions on their own. The SSA then adopts the determinations at these two levels.
If you are dissatisfied with the initial determination, you may appeal. In most states, this appeal is a request for reconsideration. In ten states Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and parts of New York and California, called prototype states, SSA is experimenting with eliminating the reconsideration step. The initial determination will tell a claimant in a prototype state to appeal by requesting a hearing. HALLEX I-2-4-99 contains instructions for processing appeals in those circumstances where a claimant moves into or out of a prototype state while the claim is pending.
If you request reconsideration, a different team than the one that issued the initial determination will make the reconsideration determination; but the result will probably be the same. Relatively few reconsideration determinations result in an award of benefits. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.907 et seq. regarding reconsideration. The next step is to request a hearing before an administrative law judge.
After you request a hearing, but before a hearing is held, an attorney advisor (whose job includes writing decisions for ALJs) may review the file, request additional evidence and conduct an informal prehearing conference (usually a telephone call to your attorney). The attorney advisor may issue a fully favorable decision. If so, the hearing request will be dismissed unless a request to proceed with the hearing is made within 30 days after the date of the attorney advisor decision. The Appeals Council, not an ALJ, has authority to review a decision by an attorney advisor. 20 C.F.R. § 404.942.
You may appear in person before the ALJ or by video teleconferencing. If you object to appearing by video teleconferencing, the ALJ must reschedule the hearing so that you can appear in person. 20 C.F.R. § 404.936(d) and (e).
At a hearing before an ALJ, evidence may be received even though it would not be admissible in court under the rules of evidence used by the court. 20 C.F.R. § 404.950(c). Vocational or medical experts sometimes testify, appearing in person or by video teleconferencing. 20 C.F.R. § 404.936(c). The hearing is not adversarial in nature. The hearing is recorded and testimony is taken under oath or by affirmation. After the hearing, a written decision is issued by the administrative law judge. See The Hearing and 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.929 et seq.
Differences Between State Agency Determinations and Hearing Decisions
There are significant differences between the way disability is evaluated by the state agencies and the way ALJs approach the issue. Although it is the rule at all levels that a disability decision cannot be inconsistent with the medical evidence, the state agency decision-makers, who have only the cold file to review, seldom look beyond medical findings to consider your actual ability to work. At the state agencies, the Listing of Impairments is used much more often as a basis for a favorable decision. Despite several successful lawsuits challenging this, state agency decision-makers tend to use the Listing of Impairments as the unstated basis for a denial determination, especially for those claimants under age 50.
If a younger claimant’s impairment does not meet a Listing, that claimant is unlikely to be found disabled by the state agency. State agency decision makers tend to apply specific formulas (found in state agency manuals) to determine residual functional capacity (RFC) for certain medical impairments, thus treating all claimants with similar medical findings the same. Few of the state agency formulas point to a conclusion that a claimant can do less than a wide range of sedentary work.
ALJs, on the other hand, tend to view medical findings as setting the parameters for a range of possible RFCs, some of which may lead to a finding of disabled. They view their role as evaluating the entire case, including your credibility, to determine which possible RFC most closely describes your capacity. ALJs find claimants under age 50 disabled because of inability to perform a wide range of sedentary work much more often than state agency decision makers do.
The chart in below was created in conjunction with a Social Security Administration study of the differences between state agency decisions and ALJ decisions. It shows, for example, that during the period studied, ALJs found claimants with back impairments disabled 75% of the time while the state agency did so only 11% of the time. Look at the entry for claimants under age 50 with back impairments. The state agency found them disabled only 2% of the time while ALJs found them disabled 68% of the time.
State Agency and ALJ Disability Decisions Compared
State agency impairment decisions
ALJ impairment decisions
Compare the “Percent of awards—Functional” column, referring to the percentage of findings of disabled made at step 5 of the sequential evaluation process (as opposed to finding the claimant disabled at step 3 on the grounds that the claimant’s impairments meet the Listings). Only 39% of all disability findings were made by state agency decision makers at step 5 compared to 75% of awards made at this step by ALJs.
The SSA has viewed these differences in approach to decision-making as a problem. The series of Social Security rulings published in 1996, SSR 96-1p through SSR 96-9p, known as the “process unification rulings,” were designed to encourage a unified approach to decision making at all administrative levels. Most observers agree that there have been some changes. More claimants are now found disabled by the state agencies. There are fewer favorable decisions being issued by ALJs now than when this study was conducted. But most observers agree that the disparities illustrated by the chart above remain in place. For example, if a claimant is under age 50 and has a back problem that does not meet the Listings, that claimant is likely to be denied by the state agency; but if that claimant is truly unable to work, the claimant may have a good chance of winning before an ALJ.
Appeals Council Review
If a decision after hearing is unfavorable, you or your representative may ask for review of that decision by the Appeals Council, which sits in Falls Church, Virginia. The Appeals Council may decline to review the decision of the administrative law judge, in which case the decision of the ALJ becomes the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security on the claim, subject to court review. The Appeals Council may review the decision of the ALJ and affirm it, modify it, reverse it, or remand it for a new hearing.
In some instances, the Appeals Council reviews decisions of administrative law judges, either favorable or unfavorable to the claimant, on its own motion.
New evidence, applicable to the time before the date of the ALJ’s decision, may be submitted to the Appeals Council. Review by the Appeals Council is almost always a review of the record. Although there is a provision that allows the claimant or representative to petition to be allowed to appear before the Appeals Council, oral argument is virtually never granted. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.967 et seq. regarding Appeals Council review.
If the Appeals Council denies review or makes a decision adverse to you, you may file a civil action in the United States District Court for the district where you live. The Commissioner of Social Security is named as defendant. The court has the power to affirm, modify or reverse the decision of the Commissioner, with or without remanding the case for a rehearing. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
If the U.S. District Court affirms the decision of SSA and grants judgment to the defendant Commissioner, you may appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the circuit in which the district court sits. If the Court of Appeals denies your case, you may file a petition for certiorari with the United States Supreme Court. Recently the Supreme Court has granted certiorari in very few Social Security Act cases.