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Appeals In Social Security Cases

Approval rates for Social Security claims have been declining over that last two decades. In 2001, 37 percent of claims were approved at the first level, no need for any appeal. By 2010, that initial approval rate was down to 26 percent.

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What You Can Do if Your Claim is Denied

1. If your initial claim for Social Security benefits is denied, you'll get a notice in the mail from the Social Security Administration, and that notice will inform you that you have 60 days to file a Request for Reconsideration.

Requests for Reconsideration are rarely granted. Between 2001 and 2010, 3 percent were granted in the worst year, and 13 percent in the best year. But you should submit a request anyway.

2. If your claim is denied again at reconsideration, you then have 60 days to file a Request for Hearing.

Your chances at a hearing depend, of course, on the quality of your case, but also very much on which judge you happen to get for your hearing. The hearing is the only place where you get to appear in front of a judge and testify about the problems you have that keep you from working. Favorable Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) these days approve about half of the cases that come before them.

3. If you don’t win at the hearing, you have another 60 days to file an appeal with the Social Security Appeals Council.

It is rare to win a case at the Appeals Council level, and unfortunately, the Appeals Council often takes more than a year to consider your case. If the Council reverses the ALJ hearing decision, it rarely orders that you get benefits; instead, it usually sends the case back to the same ALJ for another hearing, to get more information or ask the ALJ to explain the decision in more detail. However, most of the time, the Appeals Council just denies review of your decision.

4. If you're denied by the Appeals Council, you'll then have 60 days to file an appeal in the United States District Court, also known as “federal court.”

The federal court appeal is usually just on paper, with your lawyer and the lawyer for the government filing briefs and the court making its decision in writing. The federal judge can ask for oral argument, but that is rare, and it is just your lawyer and the government’s lawyer making legal arguments. There is no hearing at which you testify and present evidence. The federal judge does not weigh the facts or decide what evidence to believe. The judge considers whether the ALJ made any legal errors in its decision--errors like failing to explain why the ALJ did not believe your doctor’s opinion about your disability, or failing to include all of your physical and mental impairments in asking questions of the vocational expert at the hearing about whether you can work. If the ALJ didn’t make any legal errors, and if there was evidence supporting the decision (even if there was other evidence against the decision), the federal court will uphold the ALJ decision, and you'll be denied.

5. If that happens, you have 60 days to file an appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Ninth Circuit is the last court in which you have any chance of a favorable decision.

It is theoretically possible to ask for a review in the United States Supreme Court if you lose, but the Supreme Court grants very few requests for review, only in cases that are considered to be of wide application and great importance. If you are appealing, your lawyer files a notice of appeal in the federal district court. S/he then files an opening brief; the government files an answering brief, and your lawyer files a reply brief. The court holds oral argument before a three-judge panel at the old Pioneer Courthouse in Portland, and the court issues its decision, sometimes within a few weeks (which is usually bad news) and sometimes in several months to a year if the case is complicated or the judges have differences of opinion they need to work out. The court’s decision ends the case if it is against you. A favorable decision reverses the ALJ’s denial and may lead either to a payment of benefits or to sending the case back to the same ALJ for another hearing and decision.

In recent years, the immediate payment of benefits has become much less common, and some cases have been sent back for repeated hearings, taking a number of years to resolve. Appeals take a long time. Sometimes it makes more sense to pursue a new application for benefits or to do both at the same time.

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Thanks & Praise


  • I had a complicated disability retirement that involved not only Social Security, but the Office of Personal Management.
    My lawyer was excellent. I have a fairly severe learning disability, and organization and paperwork are not my strong suit. She made sure I was organized and prepared, both with the paperwork and for the court appearance. I always felt respected, which is rare for someone with my condition when dealing with others.
    Disability client
  • I cannot express my gratitude
    and appreciation for the meticulous effort and successful case you put together on my behalf.  This has been an extremely difficult time for me.  You have helped by giving me the support and guidance toward a positive result.  Thank you, Melissa!
    Mary, Portland
  • Scott Sell and his team were excellent
    Scott Sell and his team were excellent in helping me win my disability benefits. I couldn't begin to negotiate the maze of paperwork that Social Security requires so that's why I hired Scott and his team to handle it for me. Everyone at the law firm are highly professional, they have a vast wealth of knowledge and resources, and what really matters to me is what kind and caring people they are. I was really impressed with how quickly I was awarded my benefits, it took far less time than I imagined and that was because I hired the right people to handle my case. Thanks to everyone at TCN & F and especially to Scott, Erin and Susan
    Debra, Portland
  • I’m sure things went as smooth
    as they did because of you being my lawyer. The man at the local SS office said that people have a lot of respect for you in the SS world. Thank you again so much.
    Pam, Salem, OR
  • Finding oneself applying for disability
    is an extremely difficult position to be in. I found myself at times very confused and overcome with emotion. However, from the first time I met her, Melissa treated me kindly, respectfully and all the while maintaining a very professional demeanor. I was never anything but 100 percent confident in her abilities to guide me through this difficult time. Now that this difficult endeavor has wound down, I am filled with a sense of renewed hope. Thanks to your wonderful team, I now feel that I have been given a ‘fresh start’ in life. Not a lot of folks are given that opportunity.
    Speaking of teamwork, my thank you would not be complete without mentioning your assistant, Erin Daniels. Erin was also very professional, very helpful and I never felt as if I was being talked down to. She deserves a great big thank you for her efforts also.
    I will always remain forever grateful to the great staff at Swanson, Thomas and Coon.
    Suzanne, NE Portland
  • Melissa,
    thank you so much for all of your hard work! I will forever be grateful for all that you did to help me prepare for the hearing, for being so kind, for always answering my calls and emails so quickly, and for always being so helpful! You really have no idea how much my husband and I appreciate you. Thanks again for everything,
    Rachael, Portland
  • Melissa is a trust worthy lawyer.
    We had a very hard case which had a low chance of winning, but we did win. Melissa is patient and honest. She takes the time to explain any information even it takes a couple of times to explain the same thing. I found Melissa to be very professional. This was the first time I have ever had to go before a judge and it was a little scary but Melissa helped us be calm. I believe Melissa knows what she is doing.
    Becky, Hillsboro
  • Dear Melissa,
    thanks very much for helping with my SSDI hearing. You were so kind and gracious as well as helpful to me. You restored my faith in lawyers. My lawyer for my car accident claim was rude and didn’t follow through as promised. You were exactly the opposite and made me feel respected and comfortable/relaxed. Thanks VERY much.
    Sue, Portland
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