Hiring a Qualified Disability Lawyer in Massachusetts
Claimants with representation in Massachusetts are approved in higher percentages, have a need for fewer appeals, and more favorable "dates of onset" (the date the disability is proven to have begun) which can result in higher back pay benefits.
Representation may be through a disability lawyer or a specialized non-attorney disability representative. Many non-attorney reps are former Social Security Administration Claims Specialists and Disability Examiners.
A qualified representative will have a knowledge of Social Security administrative law and procedures, especially with regard to how claims are approved through the Social Security listings and the medical vocational grid rules. A qualified and competent representative or lawyer will also be skilled in the ability to obtain the most relevant case evidence, analyze it correctly, and incorporate it as part of a winning strategy for a claim.
To learn about fees for representation, see: "How do disability lawyers get paid?"
If you are filing for Social Security or Supplemental Security Income disability (SSI) in Massachusetts, your chances of winning your disability benefits with your initial disability claim are slightly better than applicants in other states. About 39 percent of disability applicants in Massachusetts are approved for SSDI-SSI disability benefits with their initial disability application; compared to a national initial disability claim approval rate of about 31 percent.
Even with the more favorable initial disability claim approval rate, the vast majority of disability applicants are not approved with their initial disability application. Of course, Social Security allows any denied disability applicant to appeal their disability denial; however the odds of being approved for disability do not improve on the first appeal.
Even fewer disability applicants are approved with their reconsideration appeal: 7 out of 10 disability applicants are denied by the Massachusetts DDS. At the national level, the reconsideration appeal rate is even lower with only 11 percent being approved for disability benefits.
If you are a resident of Massachusetts you have a slightly better than average chance of being approved at both of these levels, however statistics demonstrate that most disability applicants are still denied benefits. High denial rates for initial disability claims and reconsideration appeals are the norm for the nation.
Most disability applicants will have to appeal their disability claims one or two times before being approved for disability benefits. If your reconsideration appeal is denied, you can ask for a hearing before an administrative law judge.
It is at this point in the disability process that you may want to consider the services of a Social Security representative which may be a disability attorney or a non-attorney disability representative.
Is there a difference between the two types of representatives? In practical terms, the answer is no. The Social Security Disability and SSI system is administrative in nature, not purely legal, which is why decisions on disability applications and reconsiderations are made by disability examiners. Judges only make decisions at the second appeal level, the disability hearing level. As the system is administrative law, a representative may be a lawyer or a non-attorney.
The primary consideration as to who a claimant should choose as their representative should be whether or not the prospective representative has a solid understanding of how the disability evaluation process works, how evidence is considered, the mechanisms that exist for approving benefits, and how Social Security regulations, court rulings, and medical-vocational grid rules apply to a case.
Translation: a claimant should always choose a representative who specializes in Social Security claims (this includes SSI disability). While a claimant may wish to have a disability lawyer represent their claim, they should be mindful of the fact that many lawyers handle a variety of types of claims (criminal, traffic, bankruptcy) and, in so doing, may not have developed an expertise with regard to Social Security Administrative law.
Many non-attorney disability representatives, by contrast, are former Social Security Administration personnel and former disability examiners (such as the author of SSDRC.com, Tim Moore).
As to when a claimant should get representation, many claimants will benefit from representation at the earliest point possible, simply to avoid missing vital deadlines and to maximize the possibility of winning a claim at the earliest possible time.
At the very latest, however, a claimant should always be represented when a claim has progressed to the point where a disability hearing will be necessary. Disability hearings often involve the appearance of expert witnesses who have been called by the presiding administrative law judge and a qualified representative will have experience in responding to such testimony.
Additionally, a disability lawyer or representative will generally focus not simply on presenting medical evidence at the hearing, but, instead, instead that satisfies the Social Security definition of disability by either proving that the claimant has functional limitations that prevent a return to work activity, or which proves that the claimant has a specific medical condition that automatically qualifies for disability benefits.
While it may take a year or more to get a disability hearing scheduled, the hearing usually results in a favorable disability decision. The ALJ hearing approval rate in Massachusetts is nearly 60 percent, which is again ahead of a national hearing approval rate of 55 percent.
If it takes months to get your ALJ hearing, it would be prudent to have the services of a professional who is knowledgeable about Social Security Disability law as well as vocational and medical guidelines. A representative will gather the necessary medical records, will usually attempt to obtain statements from a claimant's treating physicians, and may even hire vocational or medical experts to help substantiate the facts of a disability claim. In essence, a representative will present a claim in a way that is most favorable to it being approved for disability.
In Massachusetts like all other states, disability cases that reach the Administrative law judge hearing have a better chance of being approved if they have representation. Congressional Social Security Disability hearing approval data indicates that a disability claimant with representation may have as much as a 25 percent better chance of winning a disability case than claimants who do not have representation.
About the Author: Tim Moore is a former Social Security Disability Examiner in North Carolina, has been interviewed by the NY Times and the LA Times on the disability system, and is an Accredited Disability Representative (ADR) in North Carolina. For assistance on a disability application or Appeal in NC, click here.
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