If you received a denial from the Appeals Council (AC) - which is likely, considering that around 85% of cases are denied at the AC - you have one more avenue for appeal: Federal District Court. As with appeals for the Reconsideration, Hearing, and AC appeal stages, a civil action must be filed in Federal court within 60 days after you receive notice of the AC denial.
The process of appealing and receiving a decision from Federal court often can take at least a year.
What happens to my claim at the Federal District Court?
At the Federal court stage, the judge can either uphold the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) decision, remand the ALJ decision back to the Social Security Administration for further proceedings, or reverse the ALJ decision and find that you are disabled. However, it should be noted that reversal of the ALJ decision is very rare.
Appeals to the Federal court are more complicated and costly than appeals throughout the administrative process with the Social Security Administration. Unlike prior appeals during the disability process, appealing to the Federal district court has a filing fee (usually around $400). This fee can be waived if you are able to prove to the court that you are unable to afford the fee. Due to the increased complexity of Federal court appeals, it is strongly recommended that you obtain an attorney to represent you.
Your attorney (or yourself) will file a complaint in Federal court against the Social Security Administration. The procedural requirements will vary by court, but generally the court will issue a summons, which must be served (together with a copy of the complaint) on the Social Security Administration, the Attorney General of the United States, and the United States Attorney for the district in which you reside. An attorney for the Social Security Administration will then file an answer, arguing why the ALJ decision should be upheld.
At that point, your attorney (or yourself) will file an opening brief. This is a detailed argument setting forth the basis for your appeal to overturn the Social Security Administration's finding that you were not disabled.
The opening brief will address any errors made by the ALJ in your case. However, keep in mind that a claimant is not permitted to submit additional evidence to the Federal court.
An attorney for the Social Security Administration will then file a Response, arguing why the ALJ decision should be upheld. You (or your attorney) is able to file a Reply brief - an additional brief addressing any arguments set forth by the attorney for the Social Security Administration.
It is possible, but unlikely, that you (or your attorney) will need to participate in in-person arguments before the Federal court. Usually a Federal judge is able to make a decision based upon the written arguments in front of the court.
In fiscal year 2020, approximately 49% of cases were remanded to the Social Security Administration.
Attorney Fees for Cases Appealed to Federal Court
Attorney fees are considerably different for cases that reach the Federal court level of appeal. Under the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA), if your claim is remanded back to the Social Security Administration, the Federal court will most likely award attorney fees. EAJA attorney fees are paid by the Federal court (i.e. the United States government) - not you. These EAJA attorney fees are actually paid directly to the claimant; however, you will most likely be asked to assign over any EAJA fees to your attorney. The reason for this payment arrangement is that paying the fees directly to a claimant gives the federal government the ability to collect debts (using the EAJA money) from disability claimants who owe back taxes, child support, or other debts.
Please note: EAJA fees are separate from any potential fees a representative might be entitled to if a case that is remanded by the Federal court is subsequently decided in your favor by the Social Security Administration and you receive disability back pay benefits.
- The Federal court appeals process is more complicated and costly than prior appeals.
- It can often take at least a year to receive a decision from the Federal court.
- Approximately 49% of cases were remanded by the Federal court last fiscal year.
- It is important to have an attorney represent you in front of the Federal court.
- EAJA fees may be owed to your attorney if your claim is remanded back to the Social Security Administration for further proceedings.