Federal Court 101 – What you need to know before filing your claim in Federal Court

By: Kirsten E. Wold

Before launching into the federal court process, an overview of the Social Security Disability Claims process is appropriate:

  • Application (File the application in person, at the local office, or online)
  • Initial Denial
  • Appeal to Reconsideration
  • Reconsideration Denial
  • Appeal to Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Hearing
  • ALJ Denial
  • Appeal to Appeals Council
  • Appeals Council Denial
  • Appeal to Federal Court

The purpose of taking a case to Federal Court is to encourage justice and to right a wrong. By taking a case there, we have the opportunity to continue the original claim, and if successful, we have another chance to help our clients obtain the benefits they deserve all the way back to the original date of the application.

We are very selective with the cases we appeal to Federal Court (reasons listed below). Therefore, just because we decide not to appeal a case to Federal Court, does not mean that we do not believe the client is disabled. It only means that the ALJ managed to at least write a decision that follows the laws they are required to follow.

Important information to know about Federal Court Appeals:

  • It costs money to file. The current filing fee is $400, to be paid by the claimant, unless the court approves a fee waiver for proof of absolute lack of funds.
  • It can take a very long time for a case to move through this level. On average, our cases have taken about 12-18 months from the filing date until a final ruling from a Judge.
  • There is opposing counsel. At all other levels of a Social Security claim, it is the claimant trying to prove their claim of disability to the Administration without opposition from other parties. At Federal Court, there are government attorneys fighting against us trying to prove that the ALJ made the proper finding at the hearing.
  • The claimant is not necessarily involved personally at Federal Court. The procedure at Federal Court is mostly research and writing performed by your attorney. The majority of the time there is no hearing (with a rare exception when the Judge wants the attorneys to argue in person at a hearing that the claimant does not need to attend.)
  • The standards are set very high for Federal Court cases. The Judges who preside over these cases are no longer necessarily looking at the evidence and medical records to determine if a claimant is disabled or not. Cases at Federal Court are reviewed to determine if the ALJ wrote a sound decision and followed the letter of the law. It’s more about the written denial, and how it was written, than the merits of the claim itself.
  • A positive outcome at the Federal Court does not necessarily mean you win your benefits. Most Federal Court cases that are considered favorable grant a remand to the claimant. This means that the Court agrees that the ALJ did something wrong in writing his/her decision, and that the claimant deserves to have their case looked at again. So the Court remands the case back to be heard again before an ALJ, who again may continue to decide that the claimant is not disabled or award benefits.