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IL disability lawyerThere are typically four stages to the Social Security disability application process. First, the applicant receives an initial determination of their eligibility. If the initial determination finds the applicant is not disabled, they may ask for reconsideration of that decision. If Social Security still rejects the claim, the applicant may request a formal hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). If the ALJ rejects the application, the fourth and final step is to ask for a review from the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council.

If even after all four steps, Social Security still denies a disability claim, the applicant can then seek “judicial review,” i.e., file a lawsuit in federal court. The Social Security Act expressly guarantees the right to judicial review of “any final decision … after a hearing.”

When Is a Social Security Decision Final?

The U.S. Supreme Court recently weighed in on what exactly the law means when it says “any final decision” can be appealed to the court. More precisely, if the Appeals Council dismisses a fourth-step appeal due to a procedural issue, is that a “final decision” that can be reviewed by a judge.

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Il disability lawyerWhen Social Security denies an application for disability benefits, the applicant has the right to appeal. The appeals process often includes a number of stages, including filing a formal petition for review with a federal judge, who has the authority to order Social Security to conduct a new hearing on your application.

Judge: ALJ Used “Template” Language, Failed to Explain Reasons for Rejecting Disability Claim

Your chances on appeal are much stronger if you are represented by an experienced Social Security disability attorney. But there are cases where a disability applicant has represented themselves and still managed to prevail on appeal. In fact, it happened just recently to a woman from right here in Illinois.

The plaintiff in this case first applied for disability benefits six years ago, citing her inability to work due to diabetes and blindness in one eye. A Social Security administrative law judge (ALJ) held a hearing on the plaintiff's application in 2016. After hearing the plaintiff's testimony and other evidence, however, the ALJ denied the application for benefits.

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Illinois social security disability lawyer debtsMany Illinois residents are understandably reluctant to hire an attorney to represent them when applying for Social Security disability benefits, because they simply cannot afford to pay a lawyer–especially when they are already unable to work and have limited financial resources. This is why a qualified disability lawyer works on a contingency basis. In other words, the lawyer only accepts payment if they obtain a disability award for the client.

Federal law also requires Social Security to pay applicants’ attorney’s fees in certain cases. Specifically, the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) provides that when an applicant prevails in litigation against the Social Security Administration–and the government's position was not “substantially justified”–then a judge may order an award of attorney's fees to the successful applicant. However, an EAJA award is payable directly to the disability applicant rather than his or her attorney.

Seventh Circuit Upholds Using Attorney Fee Award to "Offset” Poor Disability Recipients' Debts

The distinction of whom the award is paid to is critical, because there are cases where the federal government can use money awarded for attorney’s fees to “offset” debts owed by the applicant for matters unrelated to their Social Security case. For example, if an applicant is behind on their student loans or child support payments, the U.S. Treasury can use a disability-related award of attorney’s fees to pay off those debts without the applicant’s consent.

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