The year was 1956.
Elvis Presley released his first two albums,.
Philadelphia’s own Grace Kelly married Rainier III, Prince of Monaco.
The Supreme Court of the United States, in Browder v. Gayle, 352 U.S. 903 (1956), affirmed the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama’s decision that Alabama’s statutes requiring segregation on public buses were unconstitutional.
And Congress, through amendments to the Social Security Act of 1935, established monthly social security disability insurance (“SSDI”) benefits for the first time.
Sixty-five years later, the legacies of all four events live on. But only one of those legacies, monthly SSDI benefits, potentially touches the practices of almost every personal injury attorney in Pennsylvania. (Sorry, Elvis fans.)
Unfortunately for the clients of those attorneys, few understand how their clients can benefit from monthly SSDI benefits or how they may qualify. Fewer still understand how proactively identifying which of their clients may qualify for monthly SSDI benefits can help those attorneys fulfill their ethical obligations to their clients while potentially increasing client satisfaction, and eventually, the number of referrals received from clients. Hopefully, this article changes that.
How SSDI benefits improve the lives of clients of personal injury attorneys
Personal injury attorneys laser-focused on their clients’ cases may not consider—or even know about— SSDI benefits. That’s understandable. After all, compared to potential recoveries in catastrophic injury, products liability, medical malpractice, or mass tort cases, the maximum annual SSDI benefit of $36,000 (i.e., $3,000 per month) might seem like a few drops of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
But for clients who have suffered disabling effects from injuries that will cause them to miss work, monthly SSDI benefits can help keep them afloat and their bills paid during the months, and probably years, their personal injury cases are litigated. The benefits they receive are based on how much money they paid into the Social Security system.
SSDI benefits can improve the lives of injured clients beyond helping them pay their bills. Once an individual qualifies for SSDI benefits, they are entitled to receive Medicare benefits starting two years from the date they’re found disabled. They could also receive additional benefits for any of their children under the age of 18.
These benefits—both the money and health insurance coverage—could be a blessing for an injured client unable to work. The benefits can be the difference between an injured client making do and experiencing financial ruin.
How personal injury clients can qualify for SSDI benefits
The SSDI program is not a public assistance program. It is a disability insurance program that pays benefits to those suffering from disabling medical conditions that prevent them from working. As I alluded to earlier, the SSDI benefits a client receives are funded by the withholdings taken from each paycheck that client has ever earned.
A client of a personal injury attorney who is out of work because of their injury can potentially qualify for SSDI benefits. In order to do so, the client must:
Have worked in a job covered by Social Security;
Suffer from a medical condition that both meets the Social Security Administration’s (“SSA”) definition of disability and significantly limits their ability to do basic work-related activities for at least 12 months; and
Have worked long enough and recently enough to qualify for disability benefits.
After the SSA reviews a client’s application for benefits and determines they’ve qualified for SSDI benefits, the SSA will forward the client’s case to the Disability Determination Services (“DDS”) office in the client’s state. This office will complete the SSA’s initial disability determination decision by reviewing the facts of the client’s case and all available medical evidence, and may order a special examination if more information is required to make a decision.
The DDS office will then use a five-step evaluation process to determine if a client is disabled for the purposes of qualifying for SSDI benefits. That process will look at:
Whether the client is working (and if their earnings average more than a given amount each month);
Whether the client’s medical condition is “severe”;
Whether the client’s medical condition meets or is the equivalent of the SSA’s listing of impairments;
Whether the client can do the work they did before their injury; and
Whether the client can do any other type of work.
Notably, and in a change from personal injury claims, there is no causation requirement that clients must satisfy in order to qualify for SSDI benefits. A client’s qualifying medical condition need not have any specific cause nor result from their job. It must simply affect their ability to do that job.
With no causation requirement, a personal injury firm’s prospective clients who did not become clients could also qualify for SSDI benefits. (More on this in a moment.)
SSDI benefit applications have no impact on pending litigation
When a client applies for SSDI benefits, the application process will not affect any pending personal injury lawsuits brought by the client. A client can receive SSDI benefits while serving as the plaintiff in a personal injury lawsuit. A client can also receive SSDI benefits while receiving workers’ compensation benefits. Additionally, there are no offsets or liens for SSDI benefits.
Personal injury attorneys can flourish by talking to clients about SSDI benefits
Talking to their clients about SSDI benefits can be a boon to personal injury attorneys in three main ways.
First, personal injury attorneys will fulfill their ethical duty of competence under most jurisdictions’ Rule of Professional Conduct 1.1. On a related note, no personal injury attorney ever wants to be accused of overlooking a legal issue related to the issue a client came to them about in the first place.
Second, personal injury attorneys can increase their clients’ satisfaction with them beyond the positive results they may secure for them in their lawsuits. Clients will be delighted to learn from their attorney that they might be entitled to SSDI benefits, even though they did not come to the attorney for the purpose of applying for those benefits. Delighted clients can lead to more positive reviews, testimonials, and referrals, which could all lead to new client matters coming in the door.
Finally, being cognizant of SSDI benefits can help personal injury attorneys increase the satisfaction of prospective clients and clients for whom the attorneys were unable to secure a positive result. Telling a prospective client who does not have a cognizable claim, or a current client whose case falls apart during pre-litigation or litigation for any number of reasons, that there is an additional avenue available to them through which they could recover some of their losses, can salvage an unfortunate situation and turn a disappointed prospect or client into a delighted one.
To reap these benefits, personal injury attorneys should pursue one of two options. For those few personal injury attorneys who have in-house knowledge about the SSDI application process, they could assist their clients with that process online at www.ssa.gov. But for the vast majority of personal injury attorneys who do not have in-house knowledge and do not want to tempt fate (or legal malpractice claims), they should consider referring out would-be SSDI applicants to law firms with SSDI practices.
A win-win for personal injury clients and their attorneys
Despite the close ties between the injuries that give rise to personal injury claims and the injuries that provide the bases for qualifying for SSDI benefits, in my experience, few personal injury attorneys connect those dots. I hope this article changes that.
When personal injury attorneys, or any attorneys in private practice for that matter, take a step back and view their clients’ legal needs holistically instead of through the narrow lens of their own legal practices, good things happen for both the clients and the attorneys.
By being cognizant of how their prospective and current clients may be entitled to SSDI benefits, attorneys can maximize their clients’ recoveries, fulfill their ethical duty to provide competent representation, and stand out from their competitors by providing stellar client service that goes beyond assisting their clients with the legal issue their clients first came to them about.
Thomas J. Giordano, Jr., is a founding partner at Pond Lehocky Giordano LLP. He heads the firm’s Social Security disability practice group. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reprinted with permission from the September 28, 2021, edition of The Legal Intelligencer © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited, contact 877-257-3382 or email@example.com.