The Appeals Council (AC) is the last stage of review of disability claims by the Social Security Administration (SSA). If you appealed an unfavorable decision (a denial) from an administrative law judge, and the Appeals Council declines to review the judge's decision, you have two options:
Unlike unfavorable decisions from administrative law judges (ALJs), which detail at length why you weren't approved for disability benefits, AC denial notices are short and don't provide an explanation why the council declined to review your case. The denial will simply state that the AC didn't find a reason why the ALJ's decision should be changed. (For more information about when the AC will review an ALJ decision, see our article on reasons why the Appeals Council will review a case.)
To better understand why your disability claim was denied again, you'll need to go back and look at your unfavorable ALJ decision. Social Security awards benefits to people who have medical conditions that prevent them from working, so the ALJ's decision will explain why the judge thinks you're able to work. If the ALJ didn't think you had enough medical evidence, for example, you'll know what you need to improve your chances for your next steps.
If you've reached the Appeals Council level, you've likely spent several years pursuing your claim for disability benefits, and you probably don't want to give up on your application entirely. No "one size fits all" solution exists for disability claimants (applicants) at this stage of the process. Your representative, if you have one, will help you decide what your next move should be.
The simplest way to continue after an Appeals Council denial is to start from square one. While this option might sound unappealing, it's the most common next step for claimants who've been denied at the AC level. But because you've been through the disability determination process before, you'll be better prepared to address the reasons why you were denied and have a chance to fix them.
Relatively few disability applicants choose to take their denial to federal district court, and not without reason. You're essentially suing the Social Security Administration at this point, so you'll want an attorney if you don't already have one, but not all disability law firms will take federal claims. Federal court requires you to pay filing fees upfront, which can be prohibitively expensive for some claimants, and the process is lengthy.
But if the SSA made a serious procedural error or misapplied the law, it can make sense to go to federal court. You have 60 days from the date of your AC denial to file a civil action. You'll need to file the action ("complaint") with the proper district court, which depends on where you live. (Learn more about how to appeal your disability claim to federal court.)
If you're not sure if you should file in federal court or start a new application, consider consulting an experienced disability lawyer to help you decide. An attorney can submit briefs on your behalf, collect medical records, and maintain communication with the court or Social Security.
You can find an attorney using our locator tool here.
Updated September 19, 2022