Should I hire a Social Security Disability Attorney?

When you should Hire a Disability Lawyer

Should you hire a Social Security Disability Attorney?

Many people wonder if they should hire a Social Security Disability attorney. If your and your family’s livelihood depends on winning your case for disability benefits, it’s not a question of if you should hire a Social Security Disability attorney, it’s a question of when you should hire a Social Security Disability attorney. Unfortunately, many individuals wait too long before contacting an attorney about their claim for Social Security Disability benefits.  There are two rules to follow if you are considering or have already applied for Social Security Disability benefits:

Contact an experienced Social Security Disability Attorney before applying for Social Security Disability benefits.

Not every individual needs to have an attorney represent them when making their initial application for Social Security benefits.  However, in some cases, retaining counsel at the initial application level can improve an individual’s chances for being approved.  Regardless of which category an individual falls into, speaking with an experienced Social Security Disability attorney prior to making the application will allow an applicant to obtain advice in avoiding common pit falls that can result in an initial application being denied.  Such pit falls include applying for benefits too soon or too late, failing to allege an appropriate onset date for disability benefits, and applying for benefits before having sufficient medical documentation to support your allegations of disability.

If you receive a Notice of Decision denying your initial application for Social Security Disability benefits, contact an experienced Social Security Disability Attorney immediately.

If your claim for Social Security Disability benefits was denied, not only do you have a limited time period in which to appeal the denial of your initial application for benefits, but it is important to have an attorney review the basis for the Social Security Administration’s denial of your claim as soon as possible.  Do not wait until your hearing has been scheduled to seek legal representation.  Although it can take up to 24 months or more before your appeal will be heard by an Administrative Law Judge, retaining an attorney right away will ensure that you are taking the necessary steps to further document your medical condition and win your case.

Our experienced Social Security Disability attorneys would be happy to provide you with a free review of your Social Security Disability claim. Call our office at 814-452-6232 for a free consultation!

What is the difference between Disability and SSI?

SSD vs SSISSD vs. SSI

What is the difference between Social Security Disability Income (SSDI or SSD) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI)?

If you are thinking of applying for Social Security Disability or have already applied, you may be wondering what the difference between SSD and SSI is.  Although the two programs are both administered by the Social Security Administration and the criteria to obtain benefits under either program are substantially similar, it is important to note that SSD and SSI are two separate and independent programs with different eligibility requirements.

What is Social Security Disability Income (SSDI)?

Social Security Disability Income, or SSD, provides disability benefits to individuals who are insured through their contributions to the Social Security trust fund.  Workers contribute to this fund through FICA Social Security taxes that are taken in the form of payroll taxes when a person is working.  In exchange for this, an individual who is working obtains work credits through Social Security.  These work credits are used to determine if an individual is eligible for SSD benefits.  Each individual who stops working will have a date last insured, which is the last date that the work credits they have earned will allow them to remain insured and eligible for SSD benefits.  Once this date last insured has passed, it is no longer possible to obtain SSD benefits and because of this, it is very important to obtain an experienced Social Security Disability attorney to help you protect your rights and benefits.

In addition, the amount of SSD benefits an individual can earn is dependent upon a worker’s lifetime average earnings covered by Social Security.  And, if an individual obtains SSD benefits they will become eligible for Medicare after receiving SSD benefits for two years.

What is Supplemental Security Income (SSI)?

Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, is not an insurance program like SSD.  Instead, SSI is a means-tested program that is administered by Social Security based solely upon an individual’s needs according to income and assets.  SSI is not funded through payroll taxes but instead is funded through general tax revenues.  In order to be eligible for SSI benefits an individual must not exceed the asset limit that is determined by Social Security and you must not exceed a certain monthly income rate.

SSI benefits are not calculated based upon the earnings that an individual has made but instead they are calculated based upon a set rate that deducts any countable income that an individual may be earning.  Additionally, an individual who is receiving SSI benefits is not eligible for Medicare like an individual who is receiving SSD benefits, instead, SSI recipients are eligible to receive Medicaid.

How do I apply for SSD or SSI?

Because there are many differences between SSD and SSI it is important to obtain an experienced Social Security Disability attorney in the event that you are seeking to obtain disability benefits from Social Security.  Our office will do everything in our power to aid you in the process of obtaining Social Security disability benefits.  Contact one of our attorneys today for a free consultation.

Can I work while on Social Security Disability Benefits?

Can you work when receiving Social Security Disability Benefits?

working on social security disabilityPeople often wonder whether or not they can work while receiving Social Security Disability benefits. The simple answer is yes—under certain conditions.  It is strongly recommended that. if you are considering making an effort to work while receiving Social Security Disability benefits, you consult with an experienced Social Security Disability attorney.  The rules and regulations that apply are complex and one size does not fit all. There are many factors that need to be considered by an attorney and there are numerous pitfalls to avoid.

Social Security Disability recipients are provided with a “trial work period.”  So long as an individual is within a “trial work period,” the individual can continue to receive Social Security Disability benefits regardless of the amount of the individual’s income during the “trial work period.”   At the time this article was written, a “trial work period” expires once an individual has achieved gross monthly earnings exceeding $840.00 in nine months.  It is important to note that these nine months need not be consecutive.

After an individual’s “trial work period” has concluded, they can continue to work, but they can only continue to receive Social Security Disability benefits so long as that individual’s gross monthly earnings do not exceed $1,170.00* (*in 2017; this number changes every year).  If an individual’s gross monthly earnings exceed $1,170.00* they are considered by the Social Security Administration to be engaged in “substantial gainful activity.”

If an individual’s Social Security Disability benefits have ceased because the individual is engaged in “substantial gainful activity,” the individual’s Social Security Disability benefits may be reinstated immediately at any time within a five year window if the individual must stop working again as a result of their disability.

*As stated above, the gross monthly earning thresholds identified above apply to calendar year 2017.  The Social Security Administration adjusts the gross monthly earning thresholds on a yearly basis.  An individual that is receiving Social Security Disability benefits due to blindness has a significantly higher gross monthly earning threshold.

There are numerous additional Social Security Administration rules and regulations that apply to and affect an individual’s ability to work while receiving Social Security Disability benefits.  Know your rights and responsibilities.  Be safe instead of sorry.  Call our office to speak with one of our experienced Social Security Disability attorneys for a free consultation.

How to get Social Security Disability for Seizures and Epilepsy

Can I get disability or SSI benefits for my seizures?

EEG testing for seizures in Social Security Disability cases
EEG testing can be useful in Social Security Disability cases for proving you suffer from seizures.

If you suffer from epilepsy or some other seizure disorder and have uncontrolled seizures, you may be wondering if it is possible to obtain Social Security disability benefits.  The answer to this question is yes, it is possible to obtain Social Security disability benefits as a result of your seizures.  There are several conditions that must be met before a successful claim for disability benefits because of seizures can be made.

Social Security Disability Rules for Seizures

Under Social Security disability, there are certain impairments that are considered severe enough that they prevent a person from performing substantial gainful activity.  If an individual is able to meet the requirements for one of these listings, then they are considered to be disabled and can be awarded Social Security disability benefits.

Epilepsy (and other seizure disorders) are evaluated under listing 11.02, which focuses on epilepsy and seizure disorders.  Under this listing, there are four ways to obtain disability benefits by meeting the requirements of the listing.  Two of the options are for individuals who suffer generalized tonic-clonic seizures, also known as “grand mal” seizures.  The other two options are for individuals who suffer from dyscognitive seizures, also known absence as “petit mal” seizures. Under any of the options, it is a requirement that an individual is following the treatment that has been prescribed by a medical professional.  Furthermore, it is necessary to be able to provide proof of medical treatment in order to be successful in any disability claim.

In order to meet the listing for tonic-clonic seizures an individual must either have a tonic-clonic seizure at least once a month for three consecutive months despite medical treatment or the tonic-clonic seizures must occur at least once every two months for at least four consecutive months and have a marked limitation in: (1) physical functioning, (2) understanding, remembering, or applying information, (3) interaction with others, (4) concentrating, persisting or maintaining pace or (5) adapting or managing oneself despite medical treatment.

To meet the listing for a dyscognitive seizure an individual must have either a dyscognitive seizure at least once a week for at least three consecutive months despite treatment or have at least one dyscognitive seizure every two weeks for at least 3 consecutive months despite treatment and the individual must have a marked limitation in: : (1) physical functioning, (2) understanding, remembering, or applying information, (3) interaction with others, (4) concentrating, persisting or maintaining pace or (5) adapting or managing oneself.

How Drug and Alcohol Use affects disability for Seizures

Another factor that must be considered for disability involving seizures is whether there is evidence of drug addiction or alcoholism.  For Social Security disability, if there is evidence of past drug or alcohol use, then the administrative law judge conducting the hearing may find that the drug or alcohol use is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability.  If this is the case, then the judge has determined that the disabling limitations have resulted from drug or alcohol use and that any limitations not caused by drugs or alcohol are not severe enough to be disabling.  For individuals who are afflicted with seizures and have a past history of drug or alcohol use, the judge will ultimately determine if the drugs and/or alcohol contributed to the seizures and if it did, then a claim for disability benefits might be unsuccessful.

What should I do if I want to get disability for my seizures?

Successfully obtaining Social Security disability benefits as a result of epilepsy or another seizure disorder is a difficult and involving process that contains many different factors and considerations.  In order to optimize your chances of obtaining benefits if you do suffer from seizures, it is important to retain an experienced Social Security Disability lawyer who understands the Social Security disability system and seizure disorder.  Our office will do everything in our power to aid you in the process of obtaining Social Security disability benefits.  Contact one of our attorneys today for a free consultation.

My doctor has told me I’m disabled; does that mean that I can get Social Security disability benefits?

Am I automatically entitled to Social Security Disability benefits if my doctor says I’m disabled?

Social Security DoctorIf a doctor has said that you are disabled, you might be thinking you have an “easy” Social Security Disability case.  Perhaps your doctor has filled out a form for Medicaid (insurance through the Department of Public Welfare) that states you’re disabled.  But, despite all of this, it does not mean that you are automatically entitled to Social Security disability benefits and it does not mean you have an “easy” case.

Instead, it is important to understand that “disability” under Social Security is a legal determination that must be made by Social Security, often by an administrative law judge (also known as an “ALJ”).  This ALJ is a Social Security Judge who will ultimately determine whether you are disabled or not.  And in making that determination, the ALJ looks to the rules and regulations that Social Security has issued in order to make the decision.  As part of the decision, the ALJ will look to medical opinions and medical records from treating sources such as your doctor.  But, it is important to understand that this is only one area that the ALJ takes into consideration.  It is vital to have an experienced Social Security disability attorney, one who understands the Social Security’s rules and regulations on disability, aid you in the process of obtaining benefits—particularly at the appeal stage.

Alternatively, if you have visited a doctor and the doctor has expressed an opinion that you are not disabled, you still may be able to qualify for Social Security disability benefits.  Because disability under Social Security is a legal determination, it is possible to obtain benefits for disability even when the doctor does not believe that you are disabled.  For example, Social Security’s rules contain the Medical/Vocational Guidelines, often referred to as the GRID rules, which contain different standards for individuals based on their age, work history, and education.  These GRID rules are typically used for individuals over the age of 50 because at that point, the standards for disability are often relaxed.  Because of this, an individual whose doctor does not believe that the person is disabled may very well be found to be disabled under the legal rules and regulations set for by Social Security.

It is vital to retain an experienced Social Security disability attorney when considering whether to apply for disability.  Our office will do everything in our power to aid you in the process of obtaining Social Security disability benefits.  Contact one of our attorneys today for a free consultation.

Social Security Disability Hearing Wait Times

How long do I have to wait for a Social Security Disability Hearing?

Disability hearing wait timeIf after initially applying for Social Security Disability benefits you receive a letter denying your claim, you may appeal the Social Security Administration’s initial determination by timely requesting a “Hearing by an Administrative Law Judge” (ALJ).  Statistically, an individual stands a better chance of having their case approved following a hearing by an ALJ then they do at initial application process.

Unfortunately, there is a lengthy wait time between the time that you request a hearing by an ALJ and the time your hearing actually takes place.  Here is a link to the Social Security Administration’s website documenting the average wait time at each hearing office.

For quick reference, as follows are the current average wait times for the hearing offices in which our clients most frequently appear:

Hearing Office                        Waiting Time

Seven Fields                           20 Months

Buffalo                                   26 Months

Pittsburgh                              21 Months

Cleveland                               15 Months

Johnstown                              20 Months

Again, the wait time identified above is not the wait time between the initial application and the hearing by ALJ, but the wait time between the request for the hearing by ALJ and the actual ALJ hearing.

We recommend consulting with an experienced Social Security Disability attorney prior to filing your initial application.  However, if you have not consulted with an experienced Social Security Disability Attorney prior to filing your initial application, it is vital that you consult with an attorney immediately after receiving the very first letter denying you benefits.  The sooner our office becomes involved in the case, the sooner we can begin strengthening your case and increasing your chances of obtaining a favorable outcome.

Our attorneys and staff recognize that our clients’ lives are not placed on hold while they wait for their Social Security Disability hearing.  We understand that bills still have to be paid and medical care must continue to be received.  We realize this long wait time occurs while an individual has significantly reduced or no income. This obviously results in significant financial hardship.

Our office will do everything in its power to move your case through the Social Security Disability appeal process as expeditiously as possible while guiding you through this difficult time. Contact one of our attorneys today for a free consultation.

What is a Contingent Fee?

How much is a contingent fee?

Contingent Fees are the Poor Man's Key to the Courthouse
Contingent Fees are the Poor Man’s Key to the Courthouse

A contingent fee is a fee that is contingent upon a recovery; that is, the lawyer’s fee is only paid when the lawyer successfully obtains a recovery. In a typical workers’ compensation, personal injury, or car accident case, the fee is completely contingent, meaning that the client pays nothing unless money is collected.  This has traditionally been known as “the poor man’s key to the court house.”  This means that a person with a meritorious claim can be represented by the best lawyer even if they are not able to afford his high hourly rates.

At Bernard Stuczynski & Barnett, all injury, workers’ compensation, and Social Security Disability claims are handled on a complete contingency basis.  Our clients pay nothing unless and until we get them a recovery.

Not all contingent fees are created equal

Although the contingent fees charged by lawyers are similar, there are significant differences.  In addition to the fee, a law firm is entitled to be reimbursed for any expenses that they have advanced.  This can include such things as medical records, expert witness fees, deposition expenses and investigator fees.  While the reimbursement of these expenses is to be expected and legitimate, it also has the potential for abuse.  For example, some of the larger personal injury “mills” are known to charge for a private investigator in nearly every case.  This may even be an investigator who is on the law firm’s payroll!  The fact is that many cases do not require an investigator.  Although police reports are certainly not 100% accurate, much of the time they are sufficient.  We always try to keep our clients’ costs down when possible, and only hire an investigator when it will actually benefit the case.  We often do some of the investigative duties ourselves.  Not only does this reduce costs, it gives the lawyer a better feel for the evidence than reading an investigator’s report.

With contingent fees, it doesn’t cost any more to hire the best lawyer than it does to hire an inexperienced lawyer.

Fees charged by personal injury attorneys tend to be very similar.  Typically they are 20% in a Pennsylvania workers’ compensation case, 25% in a Social Security Disability case and 33 1/3% in a motor vehicle collision case.  Even though the fees charged by attorneys are similar, it’s important to note that you can hire a firm of experienced personal injury attorneys to represent you for the same price that might be charged by a recent law school graduate or general practitioner who only occasionally sees a personal injury case.  At Bernard Stuczynski & Barnett, our clients can be confident that personal injury work is all we do; we don’t “dabble” in it.  You gain the benefit of a team of experienced injury lawyers.  Our goal is to put the most money we can into our clients’ pockets.  This requires experience and care. If you’re looking to hire a lawyer on a contingent basis, give us a call to set up your free consultation today.

Who is the Best Lawyer in Erie, PA?

Lady Justice and the Best LawyerWho is the Best Lawyer in Erie, PA?

When hiring an attorney, you understandably want to hire the best. But who is the best lawyer in Erie, PA? Or Smethport, PA? Or anywhere? Before you can answer this question, you need to figure how you define “best lawyer.” Is the best lawyer the one who wins the most trials? The lawyer who settles cases for the most money? The lawyer who knows the most laws? Or how about the lawyer who spends the most time with his or her clients and listens to what they have to say? As you probably guessed, there is no “best” attorney for every person or for every case. The right question to ask is “who is the best attorney for me and my case?”

Your personal injury case is unique. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for handling personal injury cases and there is no best lawyer for every case. When picking a lawyer for your car accident, your work injury, or your disability appeal, you need to perform your due diligence into what matters to you. Before agreeing to meet, read the lawyer’s website and see what he or she is all about.  What is their philosophy? Are they local? Will the attorney you call even be the actual attorney you meet with, or will you be pawned off onto somebody else you’ve never met?

I certainly cannot speak for all lawyers in Erie, PA, but at Bernard Stuczynski & Barnett, what you see is what you get. If you hire one of our four lawyers whose pictures are on the front page, the lawyer you meet with will be your lawyer. He will be the lawyer who answers your calls, meets with you, and represents you at trial. We’re local to Erie, PA, and to Smethport, PA. We aren’t an “injury mill” from Pittsburgh and your case isn’t being handled by any non-attorney paralegals.

Additionally, each of the lawyers in our Erie, PA, and Smethport, PA law firm limits their practice to Personal Injury, Car accident, Workers’ Compensation, and Social Security Disability law. We don’t dabble in areas in which we’re unfamiliar. If you hire one of our lawyers for your personal injury case or workers’ comp case, you can be confident that we know exactly what we’re doing. Just as importantly, you can be confident that the insurance company knows that we know exactly what we’re doing.

If you need an Erie, PA lawyer or a Smethport, PA lawyer, call our law firm and schedule a free consultation. If you still aren’t sure who to hire—call our firm and schedule a free consultation anyway! There are no tricks and the meeting is free. If after meeting with us you still don’t think we’re the right lawyer for your case, we completely understand and you won’t be billed for anything.

What is a Personal Injury Claim?

What is a Personal Injury Claim or a Personal Injury Lawyer?

Legal BooksWhen watching commercials and browsing the internet, you’ve probably heard the phrases “personal injury claim” and “personal injury lawyer,” but what is a personal injury? What does “personal injury” mean? Oddly enough, it’s a phrase used more often by attorneys than anyone else, but it encompasses several different—but related—areas of law.

The phrase “personal injury” is typically used to refer to the variety of legal issues that arise out of injuries resulting from negligence, including car accidents and slip and falls. When a person becomes badly hurt, a large number of people can be affected. From the families that lost their only source of income and the business that lost its best employee to the paramedics that gave life-saving care on the scene. With so many people whose lives have become disrupted, multiple areas of law come into play.

Personal injury claims include car accident and auto accident claims, dog bites, and even slip and fall lawsuits. Some attorneys even include workman’s comp claims under the umbrella of the phrase “personal injury.” In short, “personal injury” includes the cases that arise out of any injury, whether it occurred at work, on the road, or on the sidewalk. If someone gets hurt through no fault of their own, a personal injury attorney will work to see that the injured person and their family is compensated for missed work, lost wages, medical bills, and pain and suffering.

While some personal injury firms only handle car accidents, our firm handles it all: more often than you might think, a significant injury crosses over multiple areas of practice. We’ve had many clients in Erie, Smethport, and everyone in between, whose car accident cases turned into workers ’s comp claims and then Social Security Disability appeals. Given how common this scenario occurs, it’s important that your personal injury lawyer handle all three of these areas. If not, you can be shuffled around between three different law firms all at once—if they don’t miss one of your claims entirely. The more lawyers that are involved for the same injury, the greater the chances of miscommunication and mistake. When we handle every legal claim arising out of your injury, we’re able to make sure each claim builds upon the others to maximize your settlements and minimize mistakes.

If you or a loved one is looking for a personal injury attorney in Erie, Meadville, Bradford, Smethport—or anywhere in Northwestern Pennsylvania, call one of our offices to schedule a free consultation; we’ll show you how we can help.

Using Disability to Avoid Early Retirement and Save Money

Have health problems forced you to retire early? You might have other options.

old man face shadow2Are you in your 60s and unable to continue working on a full-time basis due to health problems? If so, you need to carefully consider your Social Security Disability benefit options before filing for Social Security Retirement benefits. A failure to properly assess your options can cost you hundreds of dollars per month in Social Security benefits. Over the course of your golden years, the failure to properly assess your options can cost you tens of thousands of dollars. In fact, we have seen individuals cost themselves over $100,000.00 by failing to consider disability over early retirement.

Social Security’s full-benefit retirement age is gradually increasing because of legislation passed by Congress in 1983. Historically, the full benefit age was 65 and early retirement benefits were first available at age 62, with a permanent reduction to 80 percent of the full benefit amount. Now, the full benefit age is 66 for people born in 1943–1954, which will gradually rise to 67 for those born in 1960 or later. Early retirement benefits will continue to be available at age 62, but they will be reduced even more than they already are. When the full-benefit age reaches 67, benefits taken at age 62 will be reduced to 70 percent of the full benefit, and benefits first taken at age 65 will be reduced to 86.7 percent of the full benefit.

If you can’t work because of health problems, consider applying for Social Security disability benefits before taking a reduced early retirement. The disability benefit amount is the same as a full, unreduced retirement benefit. If you’re getting Social Security disability benefits when you reach full retirement age, Social Security will convert disability benefits to retirement benefits.

If you have already elected to take a reduced early retirement instead of applying for disability benefits it is possible—in some instances—to revert those benefit payments from retirement to disability payments to avoid any reduction in your future monthly retirement benefits.

If you can prove your disability began before you began receiving reduced early retirement, you can get a “disability freeze.” A “disability freeze” automatically disregards any low-earning or zero-earning years on your record for the period that your disability prevented you from working (or reduced your earning capacity to below a certain level). This is important because both Social Security disability and Social Security retirement benefits are calculated based upon your earnings: years with no or low earnings on your record would otherwise reduce your benefits without the “disability freeze.” However, you need to apply for disability before you are one year past your full retirement age.

If Social Security decides that you did not become disabled until after you began to receive reduced early retirement, you won’t receive any retroactive payments; instead, your Social Security payments will simply convert to your Social Security disability benefit amount. Once you reach retirement age, your full retirement benefits will be reduced based on how many months you received early retirement.

There are many pitfalls and traps associated with navigating the Social Security process on your own. Additionally, an individual’s work record and personal circumstances impacts the decision-making process; there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

If health problems have forced you to consider early retirement, you should promptly contact an experienced Social Security disability lawyer to discuss your options. To learn more about disability, please see our page about disability benefits and schedule a free appointment with one of our disability attorneys today!