What Are The Chances of Winning Disability With a Lawyer?
If you have already filed a claim for Social Security disability benefits, or if you are thinking about filing a claim, you may wonder whether it is worth it to hire an attorney. And, if you do hire a disability lawyer, you might be wondering what the chances of winning disability are with an attorney.
“Will hiring a disability attorney give me a better chance of winning my case and obtaining benefits?”
The answer is YES and this article explains why.
Low Approval Rates (Without an Attorney)
First, some background: of all applications for Social Security disability benefits filed across the country, only about 32% are approved at the initial application level.
In other words, about two-thirds of all initial applicants are turned down for benefits. The one-third who ARE approved have medical and/or mental health problems so severe that it is obvious they cannot work. Many of the remaining two-thirds who are initially denied benefits are just as unable to work, however, their claims are just not quite as clear or as well-documented. The applicants in this category have a significantly better chance of being eventually approved for benefits if they hire a disability lawyer to help them.
Reconsideration (And How a Disability Lawyer Can Help)
The next procedural step for that two-thirds of applicants who are denied at the initial level is a process called “reconsideration,” where a different employee of the state’s Disability Determination Services (DDS) agency (not the federal Social Security Administration or SSA) reviews the claim to see if it can be paid. This is where an attorney can be an asset for the claimant. Unfortunately, even with the assistance of a lawyer, only around 13% of claims denied at the initial level are then paid at the reconsideration level. That low percentage of claims that ARE paid at the reconsideration level are successful because the claim is more well-documented. Helping gather documentation is one of the most important things a lawyer does for a client applying for disability.
Additionally, the chances of winning disability with a lawyer really begin to increase from here as you work through the levels of consideration.
Disability Hearings (And Why You Really Want a Lawyer)
Nevertheless, the vast majority of reconsideration requests result in a “rubber stamp” confirmation of the initial denial. When this happens, the next step is to request a hearing before an “Administrative Law Judge” (ALJ). The odds of success across the board go up to just shy of 50% at this point in the system, mainly because the ALJs are less constrained by the SSA’s bureaucracy and more apt to view a claim with less skepticism than DDS claim examiners. However, your odds of success get even better at the ALJ level if you have an attorney representing you – just over 60% instead of less than 50%, according to recent statistics.
There are several reasons for this:
Knowing the Judges
First, there’s an adage that it’s great for your lawyer to know the law, but even better when he knows the judge. Each of the SSA’s Hearing Offices employs roughly a dozen or so judges, and each judge is expected to process something like 500 cases per year. Experienced practitioners have appeared before virtually all the judges in their area, usually many times over. ALJs are people too — they have certain preferences, pet peeves, and ways of conducting hearings. Knowing the judge’s tendencies allows the attorney to customize the presentation of a client’s claim to that judge’s temperament.
At Riddle & Brantley, for instance, lead North Carolina disability lawyer Scott Scurfield knows the ALJs that hear disability appeals. He is familiar with their preferences and tendencies, and works to build cases that are as strong as possible going into the hearing.
Understanding the Evidence
Second, experienced disability attorneys know what the judges are looking for in the claim documentation. Having a full set of medical treatment records is important, but it’s just the first step. Obtaining supportive statements from family and friends, and opinion letters from doctors, can bring those treatment records to life and describe how your impairments keep you from doing the things anyone needs to do to work a full-time job. A disability lawyer can get this documentation, in the proper form, in front of the ALJ with the right kind of explanation so that the reasons you cannot work are made much clearer.
Challenging Other Evidence
Third, a skilled, experienced disability practitioner can challenge vocational evidence offered by the jobs professional that most judges pay to testify at hearings – a person called a “Vocational Expert.” As with judges, there is a stable, known group of Vocational Experts who testify at these hearings repeatedly. Lawyers who handle large numbers of hearings know who they are and how they are likely to testify. Vocational evidence about the jobs you’ve done in the past and jobs you might still be able to do in the future can be the determining factor in the outcome of your case. Keeping the Vocational Expert “honest” when he or she testifies is another important role of your disability attorney in a hearing.
Experience in Disability Hearings
Finally, and most importantly, a disability lawyer who has appeared in literally thousands of hearings (as our Board-Certified Specialist and attorney Scott Scurfield has) can prepare you to testify so that your case is put in the best possible light. Appearing in court is always stressful. This is no less so for a disability hearing. Even though these hearings are supposed to be “non-adversarial” (meaning there are not two sides fighting it out, with the judge as a “referee”), testimony can become contentious when a judge takes a negative view of a claim or a claimant, or is otherwise skeptical of a claim. A good lawyer can help navigate around a difficult judge.
“Can an Attorney Improve My Chances of Getting Disability at the Appeals Council?”
Now, what if, despite your and your lawyer’s best efforts, the ALJ denies your claim? The next step in the process is to ask the SSA’s “Appeals Council” to review the ALJ’s decision for errors. Here again, an experienced disability lawyer knows how to frame appeal issues so that the Appeals Council will review the ALJ decision in the most effective way.
“What About at the Federal Court Level?”
And finally, if the Appeals Council does not overturn the ALJ’s decision (which they only do about 10% to 15% of the time), a lawyer can file a federal court lawsuit and ask a federal district court judge to overturn the ALJ’s decision. Appearing in federal court without an attorney, while permitted, would probably be a virtual waste of time because appeal issues must be framed in the proper way to have any realistic chance of success. With the assistance of a lawyer, you have a roughly 40% chance of having a federal judge either overturn the ALJ’s decision or send your case back to the ALJ for a new hearing and the taking of additional evidence. Oftentimes, a remand from a federal court judge results in a win.
“So an Attorney Can Improve My Chances at Getting Disability. How Do I Pay for It?”
So, let’s assume you’ve been convinced of the importance of having a lawyer represent you in your claim. Your next question might be, “How much will it cost and how will I pay the fee?”
All fees charged by lawyers who represent claimants for disability benefits before the Social Security Administration must be approved by the SSA or by a judge. The standard fee agreement for disability cases used by virtually all attorneys is a contingent fee of 25% of the past due benefits payable to the claimant, with a cap of $6,000.
For example, if your past-due benefits total $20,000, the attorney fee would typically be $5,000 (one-fourth of the past due benefits). In other words, if you are not awarded benefits, you owe no attorney fee. There are slightly different fee calculations when a case is appealed up to the higher levels (Appeals Council or Federal Court), but again, ALL fees must be approved by the Court.
Yes, a Disability Attorney Can Improve Your Chances (The Short Version)
Most people who apply for benefits are initially denied.
Those who are denied initially have a significantly better chance of getting approved at a later point in the process if they have a disability lawyer helping them with their claim.
The fee paid to the lawyer comes out of the client’s past due benefits, is almost never paid by the client out-of-pocket, and must be approved by the Court as being fair and reasonable.
Need Help with Your Social Security Disability Claim?
If you’ve been denied Social Security disability benefits, a North Carolina disability lawyer at Riddle & Brantley may be able to help. Our team is led by attorney Scott Scurfield, a Board-Certified Specialist in Social Security Disability law who has helped hundreds of clients over the years get the benefits they need and deserve.
For a FREE, no-obligation consultation with an experienced North Carolina disability lawyer, please call 1-800-525-7111.
If you decide to hire us, we can help improve the chances that you’re ultimately approved for disability benefits, and we’d love to help however we can.
Call 1-800-525-7111 and let’s talk.