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Understanding SSDI Federal District Court Appeals

James Ratchford Law, PLLC, is one of relatively few firms that takes Social Security claims all the way up to the higher level courts. We routinely take cases to federal district court, and have taken cases as high as the second circuit court of appeals. Our staff has over 20 years of experience researching and writing complicated appeal briefs and handling nuanced cases.

If your Social Security case has been denied after an ALJ hearing, it’s fairly likely but you will need to go to federal district court to get your benefits. Hearing level denials are initially appealed to the appeals council, an agency within the Social Security administration where a judge with the same qualifications as your hearing judge will evaluate the case and the decision. The appeals council denies the vast majority of appeals, essentially serving as a rubber stamp of approval on ALJs’ denials. When an appeal is denied by the appeals council, the only recourse is to sue the government in federal district court.

District court lawsuits are very different from lower level Social Security appeals. It is no longer considered administrative law, but is true litigation and appellate practice. The legal standard by which these cases are decided is somewhat different from the legal standard that is applied within the administration. Generally, federal court appeals will turn on errors in applying the law by the Social Security administration, rather than disputes about the actual facts of the case. Federal court appeals also sometimes allow us to have the law itself changed when the law is unjust or unconstitutional, particularly in cases where an appeal is brought all the way to the circuit appeals court or even the Supreme Court.

Not every case is suitable for an appeal to federal court, but at James Ratchford Law, PLLC we will closely evaluate every case that is brought to us to determine whether an appeal is possible.

Frequently asked questions

How do I know if I need to appeal to the federal district court?

You will need to appeal to federal district court if your case has been denied by the appeals council. If your case has not yet been to the appeals council, it may be a good idea to look into whether a federal appeal may be prudent down the line in order to plan your future case accordingly.

What are the fees involved in a federal court appeal?

In most cases, there is no out-of-pocket fee for filing a federal court appeal. There is a court filing fee of about $400, but most Social Security claimants are able to get this fee waived based on their financial status. As far as the attorney fee goes, there is no charge to you unless your case is one, and in most cases the federal government itself will pay the attorney fees if your case is won. A government program called the equal access to justice act allows attorneys to be paid statutory fees for their work in suing the government when the lawsuit is won. Fees under the EAJA law are paid to the attorney separately from your Social Security backpay and do not come out of your entitlement to benefits. When your claim is finally awarded benefits, an attorney fee will be calculated out of the backpay that the government owes to you, and that fee will never exceed 25% of your backpay. In most cases, your share of the fee will be reduced by what the government paid under EAJA.

How are federal court appeals different from other appeals?

The process of obtaining Social Security disability or SSI benefits can often involve many layers of appeals. Most of these appeals are within the Social Security administration, and are handled by specialists who are not part of the constitutionally mandated federal court system. Social Security cases at most levels of appeal are not technically lawsuits, but federal court appeals are. Because these lawsuits are in federal district courts and courts of appeal, attorneys must be specially licensed to handle them.

How do I find a law firm that handles federal court lawsuits?

Most Social Security attorneys are not licensed to practice in the federal courts and cannot file such a lawsuit. To pursue a federal court appeal, you will need to find an attorney who is licensed in the relevant District Court or Court of Appeals, and it is recommended that you find somebody with experience filing Social Security lawsuits.

How long do federal court appeals take?

Lawsuits in federal district court are driven by deadlines. When the case is initially filed, the court will create a proposed calendar that sets the timeline for the case. That timeline is typically in the neighborhood of around a year from start to finish within the federal court, although it is very common for the timeline to be extended for one reason or another. Once the federal court lawsuit is resolved, the claim goes back to the Social Security administration for a new hearing, which can take additional months to schedule. Altogether, it is common for Social Security appeals in the federal courts to take upwards of two years from the time the federal court appeal is filed to win the case is fully resolved.

How long do I have to get started?

If your case has been denied by the appeals council, you must file your federal court lawsuit within exactly 60 days of the date of the appeals council denial letter. At James Ratchford Law, PLLC, we can often get a lawsuit filed within 24 hours from when we approve a case for intake, but that doesn’t mean you should wait until day 59 to come to us. We do not make quick decisions or snap judgments on deciding whether to take a case to federal court, and it requires several hours of careful analysis and in some cases unique research to decide a strategy for each individual case. We do not accept cases without having a strategy and confidence that we will win the case, so we always take the time to carefully evaluate your specific case and develop a strategy before we decide to move forward. For that reason, we ask that you allow us at least a week to evaluate your case and we recommend leaving time to potentially speak to other attorneys if your case does not meet our criteria. I recommend scheduling a consultation within a week of when you receive your denial letter. In many cases, we will evaluate a case that is still pending at the appeals council to be prepared for the possible denial so that no time is wasted. In fact, because the appeals council denies so many cases, you may want to come to us for a case evaluation as soon as you receive a denial from the administrative law judge after your hearing.

Why should I choose James Ratchford Law, PLLC for my federal court appeal?

Well we admit that we are one of the newer players on the scene in the western New York legal landscape, we are not new to federal district court. Our staff has been working on federal court appeals for over 20 years, and attorney Ratchford has been licensed in the federal courts since 2014. We have referral relationships with several local and national firms and have been chosen by other attorneys to handle their federal court appeals over the last several years. We are focused on federal court appeals, with about half of our overall caseload being in the federal courts. Because we are a small firm with just one attorney and two paralegals, you will receive our individual attention and will not be treated as just a number. Every client matters to us and to me personally, and you will be able to speak to your attorney and both of the paralegals involved in your case directly as you need to. Unlike with many larger firms, you will know from the beginning who is handling your case and you can meet our staff and the people who will actually be working on your case right from the beginning. You get the accountability of a one on one relationship with your attorney.

Connect With My Office Today

No matter what you are dealing with, you do not have to apply to the Social Security Administration alone. At James Ratchford Law, PLLC I am happy to help you with your application or appeal. Call my Morgantown office at 304-974-0523 or connect with me online via email to schedule an appointment with my office.