What is a Civil Action Process in Federal District Court?

If you disagree with the Appeals Council's decision, or if the Appeals Council decides not to review your case, you can file a civil suit in a federal district court. You must submit your civil action within 60 days of the Appeals Council's decision. It is at this level that a Social Security case no longer is considered non-adversarial, as the government will have an attorney to defend the agency's decision.

The civil action is filed in the district court of the United States for the judicial district in which you reside or where you have your principle place of business. If you do not reside within any such judicial district or if you do not have your principle place of business within any such judicial district, the civil action must be filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. There is a charge for filing a civil action in Federal Court, which may be waived in certain cases.

Contained within the letter you receive from the Appeals Council are detailed instructions of what you must do. However, the process is much more complicated than simply sending a request to the Federal District Court to review your case. Before filing any documents with the Court, you must first find out what documents your particular District wants and how they expect each document to be formatted. The first document you will file will be a Complaint. Basically, a Complaint is a summary of why you are appealing your case. That Complaint must be served on the Social Security Administration, so they can become aware that you are suing them.

Once the Social Security Administration receives the Complaint, a lawyer for the Social Security Administration will file a response to your complaint. Their response will outline why they believe the previous decision is correct and why your Complaint should be denied. With the response will be a copy of your exhibit file that was used at the earlier levels, along with a transcript of your hearing(s). Because of the new age of technology, these documents are usually provided in electronic format.

After you receive the response and the other documents for the Administration, the court will then accept written legal arguments. The court will also set out a briefing schedule, which is the deadline for each brief that must be submitted.

There are many briefs that may be submitted in Federal District Court. In Court, you will be referred to as the Plaintiff, as you are the party that is initiating this case. The Plaintiff must file an Opening Brief. Then the Social Security Administration, now called the Defendant, must file a Reply Brief. Then the Plaintiff may then file a Reply Brief, which allows the Plaintiff to respond to the Reply Brief filed by the Defendant.

In some cases, the court will request oral arguments. If oral arguments are requested, your attorney and the attorney for the Social Security Administration will argue your case before the Judge who will decide your case. No new evidence may be submitted and no witness may be called. The entire case must be based on evidence that was previously submitted into evidence at a lower level of the process, including testimony.

Once the case is complete, the Judge will issue a decision in your case. Different Judges issue decisions on different time lines. It can often take over a year before a decision is issued at the Federal District Court level. A Federal District Judge may decide your case in many different ways, similar to the same decisions that the Appeals Council may issue a decision. First, the Judge may remand your case back for further development. This means that the Court may send your case back to the Appeals Council or the Hearing level with specific instructions as to what they want to happen. Second, the Judge may affirm your case. This means that the Judge may agree that the previous unfavorable decision that you are appealing. And third, the Judge may reverse the previous decision. This means that the Judge agrees with your arguments wholly and awards your benefits.

If you are unsuccessful at this level, you may appeal your case further. The next level of appeal is to Circuit Court. The process in Circuit Court is very similar.

As you can see, filing a case in Federal District Court is not as simple legally as the lower levels. It is extremely important to use an attorney who is familiar with the Federal District Court process and who is admitted to practice in your Federal District Court.