What Should I Expect At My Social Security Disability Hearing?
Social Security disability hearings are peculiar...to say the least. The fact you are going to "court," doesn't hold the same meaning as what you have experienced in the past or seen on television.
First, your hearing is a closed hearing. It is always held behind closed doors and the public is not allowed to hear or see your testimony. Due to the sensitivity of medical records, federal law requires your information to remain private. Therefore, only the people sitting in the room will be allowed to view your records and hear your testimony.
So, that brings us to the question: Who will be seated inside the closed courtroom and allowed to view your medical records and listen to your testimony regarding your impairments?
One, there is always the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). He or she will preside over the proceeding and render a decision on your case.
Two, there is almost always a Vocational Expert. He or she will listen to your testimony, review your medical evidence, and inform the ALJ what jobs would still be available even with your listed impairments.
Three, there is also always a courtroom assistant to take notes for the ALJ and manage technical issues such as putting the proceeding on the record. He or she will usually sit close by to the judge and be typing while the judge or your attorney asks questions and you provide answers.
Four, in some cases, there is also a Medical Expert present as well. He or she will be a medical doctor, usually specializing in the field you claim as to why you are disabled. This may be a doctor to review your physical condition or a psychiatrist or psychologist to give the ALJ advice. However, it is quite rare if a medical doctor is present for your hearing. A word to the wise, if there is a Medical Expert present, you are usually going to have a much tougher time convincing the ALJ you are disabled. It is rare for a medical doctor to find the records clearly support a decision of disabled.
Now, there are also some other unusual things regarding a Social Security disability hearing:
One, the proceeding is non-adversarial. What this means is that the Social Security Administration does not have an attorney present arguing that you are not disabled and have the ability to work. Also, the ALJ is supposed to be a neutral fact-finder in your case and is not bound by any prior decision. Further, because the hearing is non-adversarial, when the ALJ questions the Vocational Expert as to your own limitations, he or she will ask questions about a "hypothetical" person. But, everyone in the room knows the ALJ is talking about you. But, this is done so the proceeding remains as non-adversarial as possible.
Two, the verdict rendered in the case is unusual as well. If you were in criminal court, you would be found guilty or not guilty. If you were in a civil proceeding, you would be found either liable or not liable. But, in a Social Security disability hearing, there are three possible outcomes: (1) a fully favorable finding of disabled, (2) an unfavorable decision, (3) a partially favorable decision.
If the ALJ agrees with your case in its entirety, then you will receive a fully favorable decision. If he or she does not agree with your allegations, then you will receive an unfavorable decision. If the judge believes you are disabled, but does not agree with the date you allege you became disabled or something else with the case, then you will receive a partially favorable decision.
Next, is the amount of time you will be allowed for your hearing and the amount of time it will take to render a decision:
First, all Social Security disability hearings are usually kept on a strict time frame. Most ALJ's allow about an hour to hear all testimony and review the file with the claimant and his or her attorney. It is very rare for a hearing to take more than an hour.
Second, the ALJ will render a decision in writing usually 90 to 120 days after your hearing. At times, if it is so obvious you are disabled, the judge will tell you at the end of the hearing whether he or she has found you disabled. Only once have I been in a hearing where the ALJ issued his entire decision verbally on the record in front of the claimant. This was because the judge believed the claimant was disabled and knew she needed benefits as quickly as possible. I doubt I will ever see this occur again. Some judges never show their cards. Even if they think a person is disabled, they will not let them know at the time of their hearing. Others will automatically tell the claimant if they believe he or she is disabled. Just because the judge does not tell you at the end of your hearing, does not necessarily mean you lost your case.
What if you are not found disabled?
You actually still have appeal rights, even at this stage. If the judge renders and unfavorable decision, then you have the right to appeal to the Appeals Council. If the Appeals Council agrees with the judge's decision, then you also have the right to appeal your decision even further into federal district court. However, you will have to make a new argument once you have gone beyond the hearing stage. You will then have to allege one of two things: (1) the ALJ ignored the substantial evidence your file, or (2) he or she ignored some important rule of law when rendering his or her opinion.
There's also something very unique about a Social Security disability hearing. Just because the judge rendered a decision in your case, does not necessarily mean everything is done and complete. At times, the Appeals Council will take it upon themselves to review the case without an appeal being filed. This sometimes happens when an ALJ renders a favorable decision. The Social Security Administration has a quality control system to make sure all decisions are correctly rendered. I have had cases where the ALJ has rendered a fully favorable decision, only to be notified that the Appeals Council has taken the case for review without an appeal being filed. Sometimes, this also happens when someone within the Administration feels the case was decided incorrectly. If this occurs, you'll have to wait until the Appeals Council reviews the case before you can receive benefits. The Appeals Council may even make the ALJ have another hearing to decide an issue that was not discussed at your first hearing.
Finally, many want to know what kind of questions you will be asked at the time of your hearing. This is pretty simple. Either the ALJ or your attorney will ask you questions regarding your physical and mental limitations. If you only have physical limitations, you will be asked how far you can walk, how long you can stand or sit, how much weight you can lift or carry, and any other limitation you may have. Also, you should prepare for questions regarding your daily activities. For example, if you can drive, what do you do with yourself on a daily basis since you are not working, are you able to complete task such as grocery shopping, mowing the yard, cleaning the house, etc.
Just some random stuff here: (1) most ALJ's do not like other witnesses to testify on your behalf. Again, the hearing is on a short time schedule and most testimony is not helpful from your family members or friends. (2) Subpoena powers are limited for ALJ's. In order to enforce a subpoena for medical records or something else, you will have to enforce it in federal district court. (3) You have about a 40% chance of winning at your hearing. The national average for approval rates hovers around 45%. But, and this is a big but, some ALJ's have very low approval rates. There are some with less than 20% and some as low as 10%. When you are assigned a judge, look up his or her approval rates online. This will give you a better understanding of your chances of success.
Last thing: One of the most important things you can do at your hearing is get everything on the record. I can't stress this enough. You must either testify to all of your limitations or make sure they are spelled out very well in your medical records. If you have to appeal, you (again) are going to have to argue that either the ALJ ignored evidence or made a mistake in the law. If you are not represented by an attorney, it is going to be difficult for you to argue the law. Social Security law is vast and complex. Therefore, your best chance at success beyond the hearing is arguing that the judge ignored one or more of your symptoms or limitations.
One last thing: You also need to know there are other things going on within your disability case beyond the fact that you believe you are too disabled to work. You need to know when your Date of Last Insured (DLI) is. You need to know whether your onset date really corresponds to your medical evidence. Your alleged onset date (AOD) is the date in which you state you became disabled. Also, you need to know whether you qualify for SSI or SSDI benefits or both. If you have to go to a hearing and you don't have an attorney, you need to review the CD Social Security sends you and look at every document. You need to be prepared to present your case and make sure all medical evidence is submitted in a timely fashion.
We help claimants throughout Texas and California fighting for their Social Security disability benefits. You can always call our office at: (888) 780-9125.