Monday, September 15, 2014

Your Social Security Disability Can be Reduced if You Have Not Paid Your Student Loan

If you are receiving Social Security Disability and have failed to pay you student loans, the government may reduce your monthly benefits.  According to the Government Accountability Office, 155,000 Social Security beneficiaries had their payments reduced during 2013 because they had defaulted on their student loans.  Every year since 2002, the government has become more aggressive in seeking repayment of student loans.  Unfortunately, these aggressive tactics are becoming a nightmare for thousands of disabled Americans who rely on Social Security Disability as their only means of financial support.  

71 % of those who saw their benefits reduced are SSDI beneficiaries.  The rest are receiving Social Security retirement.  There are many critics of these aggressive student loan collection practices.  The obvious question raised is why, is the government going after people who have demonstrated that they cannot work due to a physical condition or illness.  

Its important to note that the amount of the offset in these cases is significant.  The average Social Security monthly payment is $1,200 and the usual amount taken away from the monthly check of those who have not paid their student loans is $180.  

This issue has caught the attention of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who introduced a bill earlier in 2014 to allow better refinancing of student loans.  Unfortunately, her initiative did not go very far.

Monday, September 8, 2014

New Rules on How to Object to a Video Hearing

As I have explained in previous posts, Social Security conducts some its hearings via video.  Some claimants don't feel comfortable testifying this way and prefer to have an in person hearing.  The claimants have always had the opportunity to object to a video hearing and request that a in person hearing be conducted.  However, --beware--, the process to object to video hearing has just been changed.

Effective today, the Social Security Administration will implement new rules on the process that a claimant must follow in order to object to a video hearing.  Here are the changes:

Before the office of hearings (ODAR) schedules a hearing, it will send a letter to the claimant stating that it may schedule him or her to appear by video. This notice will be part of the hearing request acknowledgment. The official hearing notice with the date and time of the hearing will be sent at a later time.  It is very important to note that under the new rule:  Any objection to a video hearing must be made in writing within 30 days unless the claimant can show good case for missing the deadline

The claimant or his/her lawyer only needs to respond to this notice if they object to a video hearing. If the claimant agrees to a video hearing or doesn't really care, no response is needed. Everyone will get the notice; it does not mean that a video hearing will definitely be scheduled in your case.  It just means that the claimant agrees to a video hearing if one is ever scheduled.  Social security asks that lawyer send responses in the business reply envelope that SSA will provide or to the SSA special fax number (included in the document entitled “Electronic Disability Claims Processing”) rather than bringing the response to SSA or ODAR offices.   Please do not upload these responses to the Appointed Representative Services site, which might delay processing.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Do You Need Objective Evidence to Win?

Many of my client's are extremely concerned over the fact that they don't have objective evidence to support their claim.  While objective evidence is important and it can help significantly in convincing the judge or Social Security of your limitations, such evidence is not always possible to obtain.  
Many examiners in the SSA will state that the claimant has not submitted objective proof of either a diagnosis or of the claimant's limitations.  This argument is usually made in cases involving condition such as chronic migraines or mental illness.  
As some of you know, besides practicing in the area of Social Security Disability law, I also represent individuals who have been denied long term disability benefits by private insurance companies.  In the area of long term disability law, there is a line of federal court decisions that provide a pretty good rule as to when a claimant should be required to present objective evidence.  Even though  these cases don't deal with SSDI per se, they provide a good argument that can be used in Social Security cases.  
Federal Courts in long term disability cases have found that disability examiners can demand objective evidence from a claimant only when objective evidence is possible.  If the objective evidence is not possible to obtain, this evidence cannot be required.  
In Miles v. Principal Life Ins. Co., 720 F.3d 472, 487 (2d Cir. 2013) the Court found that Principal's request for objective evidence was unreasonable because, "plan administrators may not impose unreasonable requests for objective evidence.  Here, the record suggests there is no objective test to prove the presence of tinnitus.  It was unreasonable for Principal to request objective evidence of impairment when it had not identified any such test that exists."   

Monday, August 25, 2014

Don't Believe all the Hype About SSDI's Supposed Depletion in 2016

Important Article About the Solvency of Social Security Disability on U.S. News and World Report

In the aftermath of the misleading and ill-intentioned news stories about Social Security Disability aired by Sixty Minutes and Fox News, the U.S. News and World Report has published a great article debunking the false allegations being made about the programs projected depletion in 2016. 

Chad Stone from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has written a great piece outlying the facts on how the anticipated shortfall was largely anticipated and how it can be managed if proper measures are taken.  He notes that in the past, measures have been taken to fix similar shortfalls in the Social Security Disability programs without any major controversies.  It is obvious that now, some in Washington are trying to create a big hype around the projected deficit in 2016 for political gain.  Chill out and don't believe the hype.  Read the article from the U.S. News and World Report here:

Monday, August 18, 2014

How Soon Will My SSI/SSDI Case be Reviewed?

The guidelines used by the Social Security Administration to determine when an existing beneficiary's eligibility will be reviewed are fairly subjective.  However, when a claimant receives a fully favorable decision from an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), the decision usually states a specific time period when the case will be reviewed again by the SSA. 
Lately, ALJs have been setting very short periods for disability reviews.  This all seems to be part of a trend at the national level, to make Social Security Disability guidelines stricter than ever before.  (Don't be fooled by the ramblings of those who are maliciously leading everyone to believe that obtaining SSD is easy.) 
For example, just a few days ago I got a fully favorable decision that stated that the claimant's case had to be reviewed again in 12 months.  This is an extremely short period.  In reality, most cases that are granted are reviewed between 18 to 36 months. 
When a case is granted prior to a hearing with an ALJ, the SSA uses certain specific guidelines for determining when a case will be reviewed.  However, the exact interpretation of these rules can be a bit subjective.  Here is the terminology used by Social Security used to determine when a case will be reviewed.  At what point in time your case will be reviewed, depends of where your expected medical improvement falls in relation to the following terms: 
  • If "medical improvement" is "expected", your condition will be reviewed within 18 months.
  • If "medical improvement" in your case is "possible", your case will be reviewed in approximately 3 years.
  • If "medical improvement" is "not expected", your case will be reviewed in 5 to 7 years.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Dangers of Hiring a "Social Security Disability Mill"

Be aware that some "Social Security Disability Mills" are now posing as "local law firms" 

I spend a great deal of time with first time callers to my office.  I listen to all sorts problems pertaining to their Social Security Disability claims.  Of all the problems that I hear, none is more disconcerting than when a claimant tells me how their lawyers or representatives are mishandling their claims.  
It seems like more and more Social Security Claimants are becoming victims of what I refer to as : "Social Security Disability Mills".  Social Security Disability Mills are large out of state corporate entities that provide none or very little personal attention to their clients.  These entities rely heavily on mass advertising, such as television adds or fancy internet sites, in order to stay profitable.  Their formula for economic success is based on the sheer volume of their case load, rather than on the quality of services that they provide to their clients.  Note that, in most instances, these firms work out of the state where they advertise and have non- lawyer representatives handle your claim.  
Obviously, having non-lawyers represent their clients also saves them a lot of money and helps them stay extremely profitable.  The largest Social Security Disability Mill in the Country uses non-lawyer reps.  It was reported by the Wall Street Journal that this firm makes more than 85 million dollars a year!    
What is more shocking --and more and more claimants need to be aware of-- is the fact that now, we have large out of state "SSD Mills" using local Connecticut and Massachusetts law firms to sign up clients without providing any meaningful services to clients at the local level.  It seems that, as consumers have become more aware of problems with out of state SSD Mills, the mills have develop new tactics to try fool consumers into signing up with them.  In fact, one of the largest Personal Injury law firms in Connecticut --which is notorious for their aggressive television commercials-- is also claiming to represent Social Security Disability Clients. Unfortunately, as soon as this Personal Injury law firm takes an SSD client, they transfer the case to a Mill in North Carolina.  Over the past year, I have been getting numerous complaints from clients or former clients from this firm.  
In many instances, once the out of state firm screws up a claim, it is very hard for a good local and hardworking lawyer to save it.  Therefore, I urge the readers of this blog and all prospective SSD claimants out there to be aware of this practice.  Before signing up with a Social Security Disability lawyer or representative, ask what kind of individual attention you will receive in your case and whether your case be handled by someone near your.        

Monday, August 4, 2014

Should My ERISA LTD Insurance Company Handle My Social Security Claim?

If you are disabled and can't work, you might have disability benefits provided through your job as part of your package of benefits.  These benefits are generally referred to as ERISA short term disability (STD) or ERISA long term disability (LTD) plans.  ERISA stands for the Federal Law that covers these type of disability benefits: the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974.  STD and LTD benefits are usually provided through a policy or a self funded plan administered by an insurance company.  Some of the major players in the STD and LTD insurance business are: CIGNA, The Hartford, MetLife, Sun Life, Unum, Liberty Life, Prudential, the Standard and Aetna.  
Besides representing claimants in Social Security Disability cases, our office also represents individuals who are seeking or have been denied ERISA STD or LTD benefits.  Recently, a prospective client asked me whether it was a wise decision for an  LTD claimant to allow his or her LTD insurance company to also handle their Social Security Disability case.  Here are my views on the subject:     
The vast majority of ERISA LTD plans have provisions that allow the insurance company to offset the money that they pay a beneficiary by the amount that the beneficiary receives in Social Security Disability benefits.  Moreover, most plans also provide that a beneficiary is required to apply for Social Security Disability in order to be able to received LTD benefits.  These provisions are completely legal.  However, LTD beneficiaries are free to determine who handles their Social Security Disability claim.  The insurance company does not get to choose who will act as the claimant's lawyer or representative.  Unfortunately, it is clear that, in most cases, insurance companies do not respect a claimant right to choose his or her own lawyer or representative before Social Security.  Instead, they steer or even strong arm beneficiaries into hiring companies like Allsup, Advantage 2000, Ocudanta and Disability Services, Inc. to handle their Social Security Disability claims.  These companies are agents of the insurance company and do not owe a duty of loyalty to the claimants.  Their goal is to help the insurance company, not to help you.  For this reason, I urge all LTD claimants who are also applying for SSDI, to obtain their own lawyer.  Social Security Disability Lawyers work on a contingency basis and will not charge you any money unless they are able to get benefits. In addition, the insurance company is required to give you credit for the contingency fee paid in the case and are not allowed to include that portion as part of the offset.   
Ideally, you should hire a law firm like ours that handles Social Security Disability as well as ERISA STD and LTD claims.  This way, the law firm can gather evidence and develop arguments that will help you in both cases.  A competent disability lawyer that concentrates in disability law is also going to be able to counsel and advise you on issues that might affect the interest of the insurance company.  (Remember that insurance companies make profits by denying benefits.)  On the other hand, Allsup, Advantage 2000, Ocudanta and Disability Services, Inc., are required by the terms of their contract to be tight-lipped as to any information that might prejudice the economic interests of the insurance company.