How to Write a Disability Appeals Council Brief or Letter

You'll need to write a letter to the Appeals Council about why the judge's disability denial should be reversed. Here's how.

By , J.D. · University of Missouri School of Law
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

You have 60 days after receiving an unfavorable decision from an administrative law judge (ALJ) to request review from Social Security's Appeals Council. The Appeals Council is responsible for determining if the ALJ made a significant mistake when deciding your disability case.

If the Appeals Council finds that the judge made a reversible error—a mistake that could have changed the outcome of your case—it will remand (send back) your case to the ALJ for another hearing. At that point, you'll have the opportunity to address the judge's mistakes. But you'll need to convince the council that the judge made an error in the first place in a disability appeal letter.

Tips on Writing a Letter to the Disability Appeals Council

After filling out Social Security's SSDI/SSI Appeal Form HA-520, "Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order," you should send the Appeals Council a short letter (called a "brief") containing your arguments that the case should be sent back to the ALJ for another hearing. Here's a rundown of some best practices for writing briefs to the Appeals Council.

Tip #1: Structure Your Brief as a Letter

Your brief should be written in letter format, starting with "Dear Appeals Council." You should include your full name, date of birth, and Social Security number. Because it can take anywhere from three to twelve months for the Appeals Council to review your case, aim to submit your brief within three months of filing your request for review. Your brief doesn't have to be very long—two to three pages is usually enough.

Tip #2: Reference Page Numbers and Exhibits in the Evidence

You can ask Social Security to provide you with a CD containing the evidence used to decide your case. The CD will include your medical records and the ALJ's full written decision. In your brief, you should provide citations to the particular exhibit (document) and page number that supports your arguments. For example, you might say:

The ALJ erroneously stated that my cane was not prescribed by a doctor. (ALJ Decision, p. 6.) But my regular doctor did in fact write me a prescription for the cane on August 13, 2022. (Exhibit 18F/4.)

You may also cite parts of the audio recording of the hearing if the judge mischaracterized your hearing testimony in their decision. Social Security will provide you with the hearing audio upon request.

Tip #3: Know What Kinds of Arguments Work

When writing your brief, keep in mind that the Appeals Council finds certain kinds of arguments more persuasive than others. Here are some of the strongest arguments you can make:

  • The ALJ didn't explain why they didn't take into consideration your treating doctor's opinions. Judges frequently need to decide which medical opinions best describe an applicant's limitations, a process called giving an opinion "more weight." Because your regular doctors likely have better insight into your limitations, ALJs must have a good reason for not giving their opinions more weight. If the ALJ didn't explain why they gave little weight to your doctor's opinion or ignored it entirely, you'll have a good argument that your case should be remanded.
  • The ALJ didn't obtain testimony from a vocational expert. One of the most common reasons for a denial is when the judge thinks you're not disabled because other jobs exist that you can perform. However, the judge needs help from a vocational expert (VE) to decide whether a significant number of jobs exist in the national economy that you could do. If no VE testified at your hearing, the Appeals Council may order the ALJ to hold another hearing with a VE present.
  • Your RFC assessment doesn't match the hypothetical questions posed to the vocational expert. Your residual functional capacity (RFC) limits the types of jobs you're able to do because of your medical impairment. Judges frequently ask vocational experts hypothetical questions about whether restrictions from your RFC rule out certain occupations. If the ALJ asked the VE a hypothetical question that didn't contain all of your limitations, and the VE responded with jobs you could do based on that incomplete hypothetical, that can qualify as reversible error.
  • The vocational expert's testimony contained errors. VEs often provide testimony based on an outdated text known as the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. Or they might have used a more recent software program, but didn't accurately calculate the number of jobs available. You may be able to convince the Appeals Council that the VE testimony contained significant errors that require sending your case back to a hearing.
  • The judge committed a "procedural error." Procedural errors are mistakes in how the hearing is conducted. Admitting evidence into the record after the hearing without giving you the opportunity to comment on it is an example of a procedural error. You may need an attorney's help to locate procedural errors, but the Appeals Council frequently sends them back for correction.
  • The judge didn't explain how they arrived at your RFC. ALJs review a lot of different medical evidence when deciding what restrictions should be included in your RFC. Your decision must contain specific reasons why the ALJ arrived at the limitations they included in your RFC, and the reasons must be supported by the medical records. Unsupported RFCs can be sent back for a closer look at another hearing.

Tip #4: Don't Waste Time on Losing Arguments

Not all mistakes that ALJs make are reversible. Incorrect details that wouldn't change the outcome of your case even if they were corrected aren't significant enough for the Appeals Council to remand your case.

Disability applicants sometimes spend too much time and energy on relatively trivial errors. If the ALJ said you graduated high school but you actually got your GED, the Appeals Council isn't going to send your case back so the judge can correct the mistake. Focus your attention on the two or three most important mistakes and ignore the rest.

Sample Letter to the Appeals Council

April 18, 2023

Appeals Council
6401 Security Blvd.
Baltimore, MD 21235-6401

Dear Appeals Council,
My name is Agnes Kirk (SSN: 999-99-9999) and I appeared at a hearing on January 8, 2023 before Judge Walker in Mytown, NY. ALJ Walker issued an unfavorable decision on March 15, 2023. I contend that Judge Walker made the following errors of law and that my unfavorable decision should be reversed and remanded for further development.

1. Error of law: The ALJ's finding that I have a residual functional capacity for light work is not supported by substantial evidence.

Judge Walker stated that my residual functional capacity for light work was supported by "generally unremarkable objective findings." (ALJ Decision, p. 8). But the Judge didn't address my MRI that showed marked foraminal stenosis in several levels of the cervical spine. (Exhibit 4F, p. 20) Additionally, the judge cited to one physical examination where I had a "normal range of motion" (Decision, p. 9, paragraph 1) but didn't cite to the many instances of physical examinations where I exhibited "tenderness bilaterally in the paraspinal muscles." (Exhibits 1F, p. 4, 2F, p. 5, 4F, p. 12, and 6F, p. 7) This constitutes reversible error.

2. Error of law: The ALJ did not explain why he didn't give more weight to my treating doctor's opinion.

My regular physician, Dr. Leon, submitted a letter stating that I shouldn't lift any more than 15 pounds. (Exhibit 9F) But the ALJ didn't mention this when he said in my RFC that I could lift 20 pounds. (ALJ Decision, p. 9) Instead, the judge based his limitations on the opinion of a consultative examiner (Exhibit 5F), even though Dr. Leon has seen me every month for over two years. Because Judge Walker didn't explain why he gave more weight to the consultative doctor than my treating physician, he made a reversible error.

3. Error of law: The ALJ didn't ask the vocational expert about manipulative limitations.

Judge Walker stated in my residual functional capacity that I shouldn't use my hands and fingers to move objects more than occasionally during the day. (ALJ Decision, p. 9) But the judge never asked the vocational expert any questions about how this limitation would affect the types of jobs I would be able to perform. (Hearing Testimony Transcript, p. 25) Instead the judge said that I could do the jobs of small parts assembler, mailroom clerk, and addresser. If the ALJ had asked the vocational expert about the manipulative requirements of those jobs, they might have been eliminated. The Appeals Council should reverse and remand to correct this error.

Contact a Disability Attorney to Draft Your Appeals Council Brief

Social Security disability is a highly specialized field of law, and the agency's regulations can be complex. If you're appealing an unfavorable hearing decision, you should consider hiring a lawyer. An experienced disability attorney can:

  • address the administrative law judge respectfully in the appeals letter while at the same time pointing out mistakes
  • check in with the Appeals Council about the status of your request for review, and
  • if your request is denied, help you decide if you should pursue your case in federal court.

If you haven't yet had a hearing in front of an administrative law judge, your appeal letter will look a little different. For more information, please see our article on how to write a Social Security appeal letter.

Updated April 18, 2023

Talk to a Disability Lawyer

Need a lawyer? Start here.

How it Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you
Boost Your Chance of Being Approved

Get the Compensation You Deserve

Our experts have helped thousands like you get cash benefits.

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you