Social Security disability practices across the country are suffering from the stagnant fee cap and slow and low-paying fee petition reviews; it is significantly eroding firms’ abilities to fairly compensate attorneys and staff.
“I have a small business with under ten staff—most disability practices are small like that, but even the bigger ones must deal with the same pressures. In just the last year alone, our insurance rates went up 12.5% in North Carolina and inflation itself went up almost 10%” Charlie explains.
Despite this, the fee cap remains stagnant at 2009 levels.
Even as he and his team work on increasing efficiency, leveraging technology, and taking on more cases, these improvements can only go so far. “For normal practice areas, by becoming faster and more skilled at what we do, we get bonuses and rewarded by the opportunity to earn more money. But for our practice area, it doesn’t really work that way. The stagnant fee cap ultimately requires us to take on more and more cases to maintain the same standard. This is extremely dangerous in the long term. Firms can only cut so much out before the quality of our services are eventually impacted.”
Many disability representatives are already overloaded with cases, but struggle to further increase productivity to even match the yearly rises in the cost of living.
Considering that employees and beneficiaries of the Social Security Administration (SSA) receive yearly cost of living adjustment (COLA) increases, it stands to reason claimant representatives should receive it as well. NOSSCR continues to advocate strongly for raising the fee cap along with annually inflation-adjusting the maximum fee payable through fee agreement, recognizing firms as representatives for the purpose of paying fees, and improving the processing times for the payment of fees.
For many in this practice area, money isn’t the primary motivator, including Charlie.
“My boss at Legal Aid saw I wasn’t happy at one of the practice areas I was in, saw that I enjoyed helping people, and she said ‘I’ve got a good practice area for you. Let’s try this.’”
After pivoting into Social Security disability law, Charlie knew he found his life’s work. “I love it! With my disability practice, I get to help the neediest of people in our society and make a lasting impact on them.”
Since the average attorney fee from SSA is under $3,300, some question why raising the fee cap up from $6,000 matters at all. But it’s about averages.
“There are going to be cases where we could win a lot more, and then of course it’s an average. If the fee cap were higher the average would be close to $4,000 or more. For example, in just the last year I had multiple cases where I won over $80,000 in back pay for clients—that is nothing unusual or special for disability advocates—it happens all the time. In fact, in ANY case where we won for our clients MORE than $24,000 in backpay our attorney fee average would increase, if our fee cap was higher. By increasing the fee cap, we could take on more low paying cases that Legal Aid is unable to take on due to the sheer volume of needy claimants.”
The stagnant fee cap is also creating a growing vacuum of talent; with the increasing costs of education and growing law school debt, most new attorneys will choose to focus on practice areas with double (and triple!) the average income of a disability representative. Everyone is stretched thin and it’s going to start hurting clients by potentially limiting their access to quality representation.
While the fee cap was instituted to “protect” disabled claimants against attorneys, it is now hurting claimants by reducing their chances of finding representation at all.
And then there are fee petitions; it can take at least nine months, and often more than a year, for a fee from a case to come in. Charlie has fee petitions from 2018 that still have not had their review by Social Security completed. “I just want them [SSA] to look at the fee petition and give me a decision on how much I can charge!”
He believes it is dangerous for Social Security to delay their reviews of fee petitions and then arbitrarily reduce fees that clients have agreed to pay, because it stifles representatives’ willingness to take on cases that require fee petitions, like continuing disability reviews (CDRs) and overpayments.
The fee cap and pay delay issues combined are “gutting out disability claimants’ rights to have representation to these issues. The impact of SSA’s actions is that they are taking an entitlement away from SSA recipients and stifling their ability to get representation.”
While Charlie loves his disability practice and the positive impact he has on his clients, the stagnant fee cap and slow fee petition reviews make practicing disability law a much bigger financial challenge than it should be.
He is grateful that representatives can come together as a part of NOSSCR to collectively stand up for representative and claimant interests. He reflects, “having an organization go to bat for us while we serve our clients is reassuring that things will eventually change for the better.”
Charlie Hall is a dedicated NOSSCR member who values his membership as a personal benefit as well as an investment in the future of the field. To join Charlie and invest in fee cap advocacy, fair and timely fee petition review advocacy, and medical record request rate protection advocacy, apply for your NOSSCR membership today.