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Social Security disability denials lead to record number of lawsuits

A new Syracuse University report shows Social Security Disability lawsuits in federal court reaching historic levels in July due to denials. Those lawsuits have jumped almost 18% from a year ago and 95% are seeking review of their denial of benefits under the Supplemental Security Income program.

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, at Syracuse University says the number of new lawsuits is the highest on record since it began tracking such litigation in 2007.

Denied Social Security Disability application form

The July figures are up 10% over June when 2,273 cases were filed. In May, only 1,675 suits were filed.

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“Compared to a year ago, July filings were up 17.9%,” according to the new report. That accounts for 2,500 lawsuits. It is a 15.1% change over five years ago. “The previous monthly high point was in August 2013 when new filings reached 2,008 cases—the only month prior to June and July of this year when lawsuits topped 2,000.”

“As far as the number of cases being denied, there are two prongs,” said Orlando-based lawyer Bart Zadel with Morgan & Morgan. “This year in June it was the lowest number of approvals in 20 years. The gross number of approvals was the lowest and a lot of it has been attributed to the closing of all these physical offices” due to the COVID-19 shutdown.

Bart Zadel

Zadel is the managing attorney of Morgan & Morgan’s Social Security Disability practice. He has more than 20 years of experience representing disability clients and has appeared at thousands of disability hearings before the Social Security Administration.

“People are not getting the information on whether they might be eligible, how to file, or what the criteria is,” he said. “Far fewer people were applying in the first half of the second quarter, so there was a huge drop in the number of claims approved. That is one thing. The other thing is as far as cases, the government has said for the last decade or, so they are extremely afraid of fraud and that is why the approval rate is about 50%. You have a much better chance of approval if you have representation,” a lawyer to walk you through the process.

“I just saw a stat recently if you are talking a claim for SSI and Title II (which covers all classes of benefits), if you have representation, you can expect to win 42% of the time,” Zadel said. “If you do not, you can expect to win 8.5%.”

The information about represented versus unrepresented claimants came from data sets reported in the August 2020 edition of The Forum, he said, a publication produced by the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives (NOSSCR). NOSSCR says the data was gathered from a release of information by Social Security.

The United States has the strictest program in the world for getting disability compensation, Zadel said. Approvals are trending down due to that fear of fraud, he said. “From my point of view, fraud accounts for less than 1%. I think it has been sensationalized.”

Yes, there is some fraud in every program, Zadel said.

“But fraud is a very small part of what is paid out,’’ he said. “Certainly, it is not a reason to deny people. Deny people according to regulation, not because of worries about fraud.”

The number of cases dismissed in 2018 for those without legal representation is 58%, he said. That is because even if people ask for a hearing, many times, they fear going to court without a lawyer, Zadel said. “I was very shocked when I saw this. I imagine it is very similar now.”

The July numbers represent 7.6 per every million people in the U.S., the TRAC report states. “One year ago, the relative number of filings was 4.7. Understandably, given the many differences among communities in the country, there is great variation in the per capita number of civil filings in each of the nation’s ninety-four federal judicial districts.”

The federal jurisdiction with the highest number of lawsuits was the Western District of New York (Buffalo) with 63.6 civil filings. The Eastern District of Washington (Spokane) came in second and the Eastern District of Oklahoma (Muskogee) ranks third. “The federal judicial district which showed the greatest growth in the rate of civil filings compared to one year ago—150 percent — was the Western District of Oklahoma” the TRAC report states. “Compared to five years ago, the district with the largest growth — 735.4 percent — was the Northern District of Mississippi.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the situation that much starker, Zadel said. But, he added, the shutdown has also forced the Social Security Administration to take steps to add technology to its system, which should mean more help for those making claims for disability.

“They are now doing hearings by phone and introducing remote video, which you can either accept or ask for an in-person hearing,” he said.

Before it did that, there was a “terrible amount of waiting. COVID is helping them make a lot of effort to keep moving forward to allow hearings to be done remotely.” Whether that changes what percentage of people get approval or denial for disability is an unknown.

The Social Security Administration was contacted for comment on the TRAC study but did not respond.

According to the Social Security Administration, the average monthly payment for SSI as of August was $577.78. That is up slightly from August 2019 when payments averaged $567.64.

About 1 million people under the age of 18 received SSI monthly payments in August, compared to nearly 4 million between 18 and 64 and 1.6 million 65 and older.