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Disability appeals a $1.4 billion business for lawyers

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By Adam Smeltz
Saturday, Aug. 11, 2012, 10:56 p.m.

Winning a Social Security disability appeal can mean a guaranteed payday for lawyers.

The Social Security Administration may withhold as much as 25 percent from a disabled worker's back pay to cover legal fees. Lawyers can receive the money — up to a $6,000 maximum — straight from the agency, eliminating the need to dog clients for payment, legal scholars said.

A “lawyer has incentive to do anything he can to get a ‘yes' ” in disability cases, said Richard J. Pierce, a George Washington University law professor who testified before Congress this year. “They're even trying to intercept people as they go into unemployment offices.”

Pierce said about 85 percent of disability claimants who appeal denials to administrative law judges have legal representation, up from the 20 percent range in the 1970s.

“An attorney is better able to make sure medical evidence is complete, make sure the judge has a chance to review evidence,” said Cindy Berger, a former staff attorney for Social Security who is principal at Washington's Landing-based Berger and Green.

Lawyers began advertising more aggressively for Social Security disability clients in the 1980s and into the '90s, said Michael Gianantonio, an adjunct professor of trial advocacy at Duquesne University.

Their work is now a business worth $1.4 billion, the annual amount set aside by the SSA for attorney fees. They face no direct opposition in the courtroom, where federal rules keep government attorneys from intervening.

The union representing administrative law judges, the Association of Administrative Law Judges, asked Congress to reverse that policy.

Adding government attorneys to appeal hearings would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, said Jim Borland, assistant deputy commissioner at the administration.

Berger said more disability claimants have sought outside counsel as “it's become increasingly difficult to prove disability.”

Private representation has grown because “Social Security has gotten a lot more complicated in its regulations,” said Dennis Liotta, a partner at Edgar Snyder and Associates.

“It's gotten a lot more involved in regulation and what's required to prove disability,” said Liotta, who oversees Social Security disability cases at his firm. “It's a very complex and ever-changing area of the law.”

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or

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