Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jun 19, 2018

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The process of reviewing or appealing the decision of a federal administrative agency usually begins within the agency itself. Before a party might be able to challenge the decision in an actual court, they typically must file an appeal within the administrative agency that issued the decision. There may be multiple administrative hearings at specific scheduled intervals along the way. Only when these steps have been taken, often referred to as “exhausting the administrative process,” will a court consider taking an appeal of an administrative decision. The courts will not step in prematurely to take a case from an administrative agency unless there has been some clear bias against a party; and even then, the court often waits for the issues in an administrative case to be fully flushed out before looking into the agency’s decision. This prevents the case from bouncing back and forth between the agency and the courts, as one issue after another must be decided along the way.

Once a final agency action has been made, meaning that the full review process within the agency has been exhausted, a federal court of appeals may hear an appeal of the agency decision. This means, however, that a party must do everything required under the administrative review process (such as creating proper record along the way) or else the case will likely stall within the agency and never make it to an appealable final agency action.

De Novo Review

Congress has provided that appeals from certain agencies, such as Social Security claims, may be taken directly to federal district court. Reviews of Social Security disability claims are heard de novo, meaning that the case is heard again as if for the first time, rather than basing the review on what is already on the record. This is likely an advantage for the party hoping to have the decision reversed, as a de novo review increases the chances for a thorough review of the facts.

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Agency Decisions & Special Deference

Most administrative agency decisions, however, do not get de novo treatment on appeal. Reviews of zoning decisions, for example, are based entirely on the record that has already been established in the initial agency decision. In general, agency decisions are given special deference by the courts because the agency is believed to have the greatest expertise on the matter, and serves as the best interpreter of its own rules. The administrative agency also does the fact finding that is usually done at the trial level of a civil or criminal case in the courts, making the agency better suited to make a judgment. In addition to allowing agencies to take some of the burden off their own overloaded dockets, courts seek to encourage parties to win during the actual administrative process itself, rather than waiting to appeal to the courts.

Navigating the complex administrative agency system to make a claim and exhaust the agency’s review process can be a daunting task. Don’t take chances when it comes to an administrative agency review. Getting the help of an experienced administrative law attorney throughout the administrative review process, and on into federal appeals court if necessary, may be essential to the success of your claim.