Procedure and What Happens at a Social Security Disability Hearing?

January 7, 2016

               If your initial application for Social Security disability benefits is denied, you will typically file an appeal (called a Request for Reconsideration).  If that appeal is denied, you must then attend a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge, who will then decide if you are disabled.

Currently, it takes anywhere from 12-19 months to obtain a hearing date from the Social Security Administration.  However, the hearing is arguably the best opportunity you will have to prove to Social Security that you are disabled. It is the one time in the disability process that you will have the opportunity to be in a room and speak with the person who will make the decision to approve or deny your claim.  Just as important, we as your attorney can fully advocate for you, point out the key evidence and show how it applies to regulations and disability law. Preparation is important; you will have waited a substantial amount of time to attend this hearing and you want to maximize this opportunity, putting yourself in the best position to win your claim.

The hearing is considered an "informal" process. This means it is not like what happens if you have a traffic ticket or a criminal offense or are involved in a civil case. There is no strict adherence to the rules of evidence, and there will be no opposing attorney in the room to object to what you have to say. Other than swearing an oath to tell the truth, your hearing is largely a conversation between you, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") assigned hear your claim, and any experts that the ALJ requests to attend the hearing. The hearing occurs in a small room that is not open to the public.  The people in the room at the time of your hearing will be you, your legal counsel, the ALJ, a person that will run computer equipment that records what is said at the hearing, and any experts the ALJ requests attend the hearing (either or both a medical expert and vocational expert).

When you attend a hearing, the ALJ will first make sure that a complete medical record has been provided and that all medical records relevant to your claim have been submitted.  If you are represented by counsel, the ALJ may ask your attorney to present an opening statement or theory of the case. Once this has been provided, you will be asked a series of questions.  Sometimes the ALJ will you ask questions and sometimes it will be your attorney that asks them. Regardless of who asks the questions, they will typically cover the following broad topics areas:  your educational history, your work history, what medical conditions you have and how they prevent you from working, and how you spend a typical day. If you are alleging a physical impairment, you will be asked how long you can sit, stand, and walk (in minutes) at a time and how much you can lift (in pounds). If you are alleging a psychological impairments, you will be asked to explain any difficulties that you have with interacting with people, with concentration, and with memory.  When the ALJ and your attorney are finished asking you these questions, they will then question the expert at your hearing, if one has been called by the ALJ.  A medical expert, if present, will be asked to provide information, in Social Security lingo, about your medical impairments and what, if any, limitations they cause.  The medical expert does not work for Social Security and is considered an "impartial" expert, although Social Security does pay for the expert. A vocational expert, if present, will be asked to provide information regarding work you have performed in the last fifteen years that last long enough to qualify as relevant to the proceeding. The vocational expert will testify to the physical and skill demands of your past relevant work.  In addition both the ALJ and your attorney will have the opportunity to ask the vocational expert hypothetical questions about whether an employee with restrictions such as those you have is able to perform work.

Once all testimony has been provided, the ALJ may also ask your attorney for a closing statement. After that, your hearing will end.  In the overwhelming majority of hearings, you will not receive an immediate decision. Instead, the ALJ will take the testimony you have provided at the hearing under advisement and review your medical records again.  Only then will the ALJ make the decision, typically via a thorough, densely worded written hearing decision that will be mail to both you and your attorney. Importantly, the Social Security Administration does not require the ALJ to issue a decision on a hearing in any particular amount of time.  Therefore, the most commonly asked question is, "How long will it be before I get the ALJ's written decision?" There is no specific answer to this and some ALJ's may only take a month or two, while some ALJ's may take considerably longer (up to 8 months or more).

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