Your Social Security Lawyer’s Ethical Obligations under the New Rules of Professional Conduct

The Social Security Administration has promulgated a set of rules of professional conduct that your Social Security representative must follow during the course of their representation.   While one might think these rules are meant simply to protect the public and disability claimants from unscrupulous rules, in fact the rules are meant to protect the integrity of the Social Security disability fact finding process and ultimate administration of disability benefits to those disability claimants truly in need.

The Social Security disability regulatory process used to determine which Social Security disability claimants meet the definition of “disabled” under Social Security’s rules is not what one typically sees in a court room, or for that matter on TV, depicting a court room.  Instead of it being an “adversarial” process where opposing sides argue it out in front of a neutral judge who is meant to be an arbiter of a dispute, the Social Security disability determination process is an administrative one that is a fact finding process where there is only one side arguing their position to a neutral judge who is meant to be a neutral finder of fact.

On April 20, 2015, the Social Security Administration (SSA) put into effect new adverse evidence regulations which laid out both an attorney’s, and a disability claimant’s, obligation to submit evidence.  Prior to those rules going into effect, the professional rules required claimants and their representative to furnish medical and non-medical evidence that is “material” to a determination of disability.   However, given this rule allowed attorneys to make a legal assessment as to what constitutes “material” evidence, the new rule clarified any ambiguity by requiring both lawyers and their disability claimants present any evidence, medical or non-medical, which “relates” to their disability claim.

The most recent Rules of Conduct and Standards of Responsibility for Representatives promulgated by SSA regulating the conduct of Social Security lawyers in Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire is meant to address the manner in which attorneys deal with their disability claimant clients, and with the the SSA itself.   The new rules require attorneys to “maintain prompt and timely communication” with their client such that consultation with the client continues throughout the course of the representation.  Similarly, requiring that attorneys provide prompt responses to requests for information.  While one would think it is “par for the course,” I can tell you that this is many times not the case given the calls we many times receive from individuals who are becoming frustrated with their representatives after being unable to receive a return call after placing multiple calls.  Certainly, this is not how we handle matters in our office, as we believe in providing answers to our clients the same day, if possible, but certainly with an idea as to when they can expect to receive that answer.

Another concern that is addressed in the new rules has to do with last minute withdrawals from representation that occur within days of a scheduled hearing (which has been scheduled for almost 3 months).   We have heard of withdrawals taking place within days of the pending hearing (and, even recently, of someone being told the day of the hearing that their attorney would not be showing up as they are withdrawing form the case).   This is certainly unethical behavior, without SSA clarifying the inappropriateness  of such conduct.  The new rule mandates that once a hearing is scheduled, an attorney may only withdraw from representation “for extraordinary circumstances.”

Of interest, SSA is suddenly requiring for purposes of submitting any medical or vocational reports that attorneys inform SSA if they have “drafted, prepared or issues the medical or vocational opinion.”  Likewise, one’s Social Security lawyer must also inform SSA if they referred or even suggested that one seek a medical opinion from their provider.  Our office finds this particularly troublesome as it should be irrelevant (and should have no bearing as to how SSA views a medical report from a treating physician) whether the suggestion for such a report came from the disabled claimant’s attorney.

Finally, it’s important to remember (and these new rules continue to reflect the fact) that one’s lawyer is considered officer of the court, and is thereby responsible for maintaining the integrity of the fact finding process in much the same manner as a Social Security Administrative Law Judge.  This means an attorney cannot allow false or misleading statements to take place in either applications or at hearings, and maintains a duty to correct such statements should they take place.

If you or someone you love is in need of a Social Security disability lawyer who works hard to obtain for you the benefits you deserve, contact the Law Offices of Russell J. Goldsmith at 1-800-773-8622.