A person who has sought and failed to obtain disability benefits from the Social Security Administration (“the agency”) can appeal the agency’s decision to a federal district court. In 2015, nearly 20,000 such appeals were filed, comprising a significant part of the federal courts’ civil docket. Even though claims pass through multiple layers of internal agency review, many of them return from the federal courts for even more adjudication. Also, a claimant’s experience in the federal courts differs considerably from district to district around the country. District judges in Brooklyn decide these cases pursuant to one set of procedural rules and have in recent years remanded about seventy percent to the agency. Magistrate judges in Little Rock handle this docket with a different set of rules and have in recent years remanded only twenty percent.
The adjudication of disability claims within the agency has received relentless attention from Congress, government inspectors general, academic commentators, and others. Social security litigation in the federal courts has not weathered the same scrutiny. This report, prepared for the Administrative Conference of the United States, fills this gap. It provides a comprehensive qualitative and quantitative empirical study of social security disability benefits litigation.
Our report makes four contributions. The first is a thorough introduction to the process by which a disability benefits claim proceeds from initial filing to a federal judge’s chambers. This description is intended to deepen understandings of where many of federal civil cases come from, and why they raise the same sorts of concerns repeatedly.
Second, the report provides some context for understanding why the federal courts remand claims to the agency at the rate that they do. We argue that the federal courts and the agency have different institutional goals, commitments, and resources. These differences would cause a sizable number of remands even if the agency adjudicated claims successfully and the federal courts applied the appropriate standard of review. Third, we undertake extensive statistical analysis to try to understand what factors explain the sharp variation in district-level remand rates. Circuit boundaries account for some, but not all, of this disparity. After excluding a number of other potential causes, we hypothesize that district courts remand claims to the agency at different rates in part because uneven adjudication within the agency produces pools of appeals of differing quality. Finally, the report analyzes contrasting procedural rules used by different districts to govern social security litigation. We argue that these differences are unnecessary and create needless inefficiencies. We conclude with a set of recommendations to improve social security litigation within the federal courts.
Gelbach, Jonah B. and Marcus, David, "A Study of Social Security Disability Litigation in the Federal Courts" (2016). Faculty Scholarship. 1668.
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