Federal District Court: Last Stop or End of the Line for Your Disability Case?

stopSecuring social security disability benefits in Texas can feel like running a gauntlet, at a time in most disabled Texans’ lives where they have minimal energy for the task.  The last step in social security disability appeals is the US Federal Court.    A disability claimant has the right to file in Federal District Court within 60 days of receiving a denial from the Appeals Council.  Claimants have typically waited up to a year at the Appeals Council for a decision. Claimants considering appeal to the Federal Court, therefore, have been waiting for several years, and are often at the end of their rope.  Deciding whether to file in Federal Court is an importance and difficult decision for disabled Texans. Most recent statistics show that claimants nationally  take only about 15% of appealable Appeals Council decisions to the federal courts.

The federal court can take one of three actions on a disability claim:

  1. Find that the ALJ did not err in her decision and affirm the denial of the claim.
  2. Find one or more legal errors by the ALJ that warrant return to the Office of Hearing Operations for a new hearing.
  3. Find one or more legal errors by the ALJ and reverse the denial, finding fully in favor of the disability claimant.

“So what are my Chances in Federal Court?”

The chances of an outright win in Federal Court (number 3 above) are very, very low.  Most social security disability lawyers in Texas and throughout the nation define “victory” in Federal Court as a remand (i.e., another “bite at the apple” via a new ALJ hearing).  Most recent statistics show a mean remand rate of 43.7% across the nation.   But these remand rates vary widely depending on what federal court circuit has jurisdiction.  Here in Dallas Fort Worth and throughout Texas we are in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals district. Recent statistics show all district courts in the Fifth Circuit remand cases at a rate “well below the mean”.

Other Factors to Consider

  • Cost: In order to bring a Federal District Court action, one must pay both filing and service costs unless the court determines that there is a basis for a waiving of such costs based on an individual claimant’s inability to afford such costs.  In order to proceed in such a fashion, it’s necessary that the court approve a motion to proceed “in forma pauperis.”
  • At the Federal District Court level of appeal the question is no longer are or are you not disabled under the Social Security Act.  The standard for review is whether the agency decision was in error as a matter of law or whether the decision by the ALJ was not supported by substantial evidence.  I have seen one case in which the court essentially said that had they been the ALJ they would have approved the case, but they found no legal error in the ALJs assessment so they declined to remand!
  • Do you have a Date Last Insured issue.  If your insured status expired prior to the date of the ALJ denial decision, you will not be able to refile your claim (rather than appealing to the Federal Court) and be able to draw social security disability insurance benefits based upon your work record and FICA contributions.
  • If you refile a claim for social security disability you will not likely be able to collect past due benefits for the time up through the date of the ALJ decision.  On the other hand, the wait in Federal Court is extended, and claimant’t can often get relief more quickly be forgoing Federal Court appeal and refiling a disability claim with social security.

So after the Appeals Council denies the case is it effectively the “End of the Road”? Possibly, but you need the input of an experienced and local social security disability lawyer.  Most, like me, will talk informally with you at no charge to assess your best move.


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