The Dangers Of Representing Yourself In Your Social Security Disability Case

Our office is sometimes approached by disability claimants who have handled their own Social Security claim and have received an unfavorable decision.  These people have waited months (sometimes years) for a hearing to be scheduled.  When appearing before the Administrative Law Judge they were unable to present adequate evidence supporting their inability to work.

Social Security Lawyer Memphis | Atty John E Dunlap

You need a lawyer to represent you in your Social Security disability claim because:

  • Our office will develop the theory to show the Administrative Law Judge exactly how and why you are disabled.  Our office understands the law, vocational issues and medical issues and are able to demonstrate how you are unable to sustain employment.  With more than two  decades of experience in handling claims for Social Security benefits we know how to develop theories in support of recoveries.  The danger of presenting your case without a theory is like not having a plan.  Without a theory, you are unprepared to prove your claim and risk receiving an unfavorable decision.
  • Our office will focus on the issues that are crucial to your case.  We recognize that every individual’s claim is unique.  Our office understands you and your specific medical and vocational issues.  We will focus on what will be the key issues in the case.  Failure to focus on the key issues in your case could result in the denial of benefits.
  • You must be a credible witness.  Our office will help you attempt to avoid the pitfalls so many unrepresented claimants fall into.  There is much you need to know about how to appear in front of a Federal Judge.  Your credibility and consistency are extremely important.  These are two of the most important criteria for many Judges and you will not find them written in the “five step sequential evaluation.”  Our office will assist you with these issues.
  • You will need to be prepared to cross-examine the vocational expert at your hearing.  The fact that the witnesses will be present at your hearing requires the lawyer to assist you.  Do not miscalculate the importance of your right to cross-examine a vocational expert.
  • Without a lawyer, you will not know the questions you will be asked at the hearing.  You will not know what to expect.  Our office will prepare you for all questions that may be asked of you at the hearing.  We anticipate the questions based on years of representing claimants in these hearings as well as our own personal knowledge of the judge assigned to hear your case.  The preparation appointment will help reduce your stress level and enable you to present as a more effective witness in your own claim.
  •  The Social Security Administrative has many deadlines.  Missing a deadline could require you to start the process all over.  You will lose retroactive benefits in the process.  Our office has systems in place to appeal your case before the deadline and protect your claim.  We will also seek to win your case by summarizing and briefing all medical and vocational issues to be presented to the Administrative Law Judge.
  • If our office fails to obtain a favorable decision, we will appeal the case up to the Appeals Council in Virginia and possibly file a federal court lawsuit on your behalf if necessary.

We hope the information on this page will help you regardless of where you are in the process.  If you have questions about your disability case please contact us at 901‑320‑1603.

The Importance of a Correct Earnings Record

A few weeks ago, I conducted a Social Security disability hearing in which the medical proof supported a finding for disability pursuant to the Social Security Guidelines.  Unfortunately, the claimant’s earnings records, which were made a part of the record the morning of the hearing, indicated that the claimant earned well above the “substantial gainful activity” and disqualified him for benefits.

Having an incorrect earnings record can harm the case in many ways.  In Title II (SDS) cases, the claimant needs to be “insured” (have sufficient quarters of coverage from earnings) in order to be eligible to collect disability insurance.  If a claimant’s earnings records do not accurately reflect all of their earnings, they may not be considered insured and therefore lose benefits that they have earned.

Social Security Disability

Disability Evaluation

In both SSI and Title II cases, the issue of earnings arises at the first step of the disability evaluation.  The Administrative Law Judge is required to determine if the claimant is working and if so, to determine whether it is substantial gainful activity.  In 2014 substantial gainful activity was equivalent to earnings of $1,070.00 a month.  It is not uncommon in a Social Security disability case for the claimant to stop working, but then again resume working at fewer hours.  If the person earns above the” substantial gainful activity” level, he or she is not considered disabled.  The Administrative Law Judge will look at the earnings records to make this determination.

The earnings records also comes up at the third step in a disability evaluation when the Administrative Law Judge is trying to determine what kind of work the claimant performed in the past.  The Administrative Law Judge will look back at the last 15 years.  Over the years there have been cases in which employment was listed that the claimant did not perform or  employment was not listed that the claimant had performed.

Obtaining Your Earnings Record

It is in the best interest of all Social Security Disability applicants to obtain their earnings record and check it.  The first step is to go online and set up “My Social Security”.  After creating this account, the claimant is able to obtain an online earnings record.  This will not be a detailed record, but it does show the years of employment and check to see if the amounts listed are correct.  There is no charge to obtain this record online.  If a more detailed earnings statement is necessary, it is necessary to complete SSA Form 750-F4.  It costs $102.00 for this information.  Often a claimant’s Social Security Lawyer will not see earnings information in the record until a few weeks before the hearing if then.  There have been instances where the Judge orders a new report to be run during the hearing.  By then it is too late if there are errors in the record.

With Social Security’s expanded online access, it is now possible to check online and obtain at least the basic information.  The earnings record is one of the most important components of a Social Security disability case and correct information is essential for adequate preparation and favorable decisions.

The Necessity of Non‑Medical Evidence

There is no question that medical evidence is the most important component of a Social Security disability claim, however, non‑medical evidence can play an important role and can persuade an administrative law judge that the claimant is unable to perform and complete for employment.

Often medical records do not contain a complete picture of an individual’s ability to work.  Unfortunately, it is getting more and more difficult to persuade medical doctors to complete functional and mental residual capacity forms. Even if the claimant is able to obtain Residual Functional Capacity evaluation from a medical doctor, other evidence is still useful.   One type of evidence that is important are work records.  These records could show a pattern of absences due to the medical condition or they may show that the claimant tried to stay employed with a series of jobs that were progressively less demanding.

Testimony from co‑workers and supervisors may also assist in proving a claimant’s inability to perform the requirements of the job.  It is important to show that the claimant is applying for disability only because they are unable to perform the requirements of their past employment or any other employment.  In addition to work records, it is also helpful to obtain statements from family members, neighbors, or friends who are familiar with the claimant’s condition and the limitations that it causes.

Working Part Time While Receiving Social Security Disability Benefits

It is possible to work part time and not lose disability benefits.  However, it depends largely on how much you earn and what type of disability benefits you are receiving.  If you are receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and you begin work, the Social Security Administration will reduce your benefits by $1.00 for every $2.00 you earn after the first $65.00.  This means that you could earn so much working part time that the SSI benefits will terminate.  But unless your benefits have stopped because of your earnings for an entire year, the Social Security Administration will start up your SSI benefits again if your earnings decrease.  After a year of receiving no benefits it will be necessary to apply again.

Substantial Gainful Activity

Memphis Substantial Gainful Activity | Atty John E. Dunlap, PCIf you are receiving Social Security disability benefits (SSDI) and your earnings are below what the Social Security Administration calls the “substantial gainful activity” amount your benefits will neither stop or be reduced because of earnings.  That is, you can continue to get your full disability benefits while you work part time.  It is also possible to earn more than the “substantial gainful activity” amount and still receive your full benefits during the nine-month trial work period.

You can earn up to the “substantial gainful activity” amount and still keep your full Social Security disability benefits.  The substantial gainful activity amount is an absolute cut off point if your earnings average more than the substantial gainful activity amount, even $1.00 more, the Social Security disability benefits will stop after you have used up your nine-month trial work period no matter how disabled you are from a medical standpoint.

Trial Work Period Services

If you are going to work part time and you want to avoid problems keeping your benefits period, it is best to keep your income below the substantial gainful activity amount.  In fact, because there are advantages to keeping your income below what the Social Security Administration calls the “trial work period services” amount which in 2014 was $820.00 per month, this is what is recommended if you are receiving Social Security disability benefits.  This way you would not use up your trial work period months; you can save them for later use if you ever decide to go back to work on a full time basis.  If your claim is SSI, the trial work period rules do not apply.  For those people already receiving SSI benefits, the substantial gainful activity amount rules do not apply either.

It is best not to use up trial work periods until you are ready to return to work on a full time basis because the trial work period can be valuable, we recommend that you do not waste it on part time work.  To keep from wasting the trial work period, you need to keep your monthly income below the trial work period service amount.

The trial work period rules allow you to earn any amount of money for nine months and still receive full disability benefits. This allows you to attempt to return to full time employment without losing your disability benefits. If you determine you can not work on a full time basis and stop working prior to the nine month period, your benefits will not be terminated.

Memphis Substantial Gainful Activity | Atty John E. Dunlap, PCUnfortunately, many people use up their trial work period months by working part- time. I have had some clients who worked part time while their claims are pending and used up their trial work period before being adjudged disabled. If your income exceeds the trial work period monthly amount for nine months at any time since you applied for benefits, you will have used up the trial work period. This is true even if the months are not consecutive. Once you use up the nine month trial period, it is gone.

The Social Security Administration counts gross income, not take home pay. There are no deductions that can be taken against your gross income to reduce it below the trial work period monthly amount.

Reporting to the Social Security Administration

If you begin any work, you must report it to the Social Security Administration immediately. But it is not clear when you must provide proof of earnings. This seems to vary from office to office. When reporting employment to the Social Security Administration, ask when you are required to income documentation. Be sure to keep all documents provided to you and get the name of the person you speak with. Make it clear that you are receiving disability benefits, not retirement because the rules are different.