So, you applied for your disability benefits. Social Security denied your claim. You filed your Request for Reconsideration asking Social Security to take a second look at your claim for disability benefits and they again said “no.” You then filed your request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge and you have received a notice from Social Security stating that a hearing will be held on your claim for Social Security disability benefits on a particular date and time. What happens at the hearing and how should you prepare?
A couple of things you should know first about your hearing:
- The hearing will be held before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). These are federal judges but the only types of cases that they decide have to do with Social Security matters. The judge is not bound by any prior determination made by Social Security on the merits of your claim which means the judge will review your claim with “fresh eyes” based on all the evidence you present to the judge at the time of the hearing.
- These hearings are “informal”. That means that the usual court rules concerning how evidence is admitted into a court record do not apply. For example, in a court setting before a judge could consider your written medical records as evidence, you would be required to establish the records authenticity by submitting sworn statements from the people who complied the records. At a Social Security hearing, a judge can receive any written submission as evidence without having to jump through the extra hoops required in a more formal court setting. Written statements from medical providers or other people concerning your situation can be considered by the judge without them being subject to a traditional “hearsay” objection.
- These hearings are “non-adversarial”. That means that there will be no “opposing counsel” at your hearing arguing that Social Security was right to deny your claim. Instead, these hearings are “informational” meaning this is your opportunity to tell the judge why you think you are unable to do any type of full-time work.
- The judge. The person who will review all the medical evidence submitted before the hearing, listen to your testimony and the testimony of any other witnesses at your hearing, and consider any legal arguments made by your lawyer on your behalf. After considering all that, the judge will make the determination of whether or not you are “disabled” for purposes of receiving Social Security disability benefits.
- The hearing monitor. This person assists the judge during the hearing by running the recording equipment and assisting with any paperwork.
- The vocation expert. This person will provide the judge expert testimony concerning the types of jobs you have done in the past, what skill sets are needed to perform those jobs, and to provide answers to the judge concerning whether somebody with your documented medical conditions and limitations could still do those types of jobs. They will also give an opinion to the judge as to other types of jobs that someone with your limitations might still be able to do full-time.
- Medical experts. Sometimes a judge may feel that it would be helpful to get the opinions of one or more medical doctors concerning your medical conditions. Prior to the hearing, the medical experts will have been provided copies of your medical records for their review. At the hearing, they will explain to the judge what types of medical problems you have based on your medical records and they will provide the judge an opinion as what type of physical and/or mental limitations someone with your conditions would be reasonably expected to have.
- Your lawyer. The person who is at your hearing as your advocate. Your lawyer should have reviewed your medical file well before your hearing, discussed any potential problems with your case with you before your hearing, prepared you to testify at your hearing, be prepared to cross-exam the vocational expert and medical experts if cross-examination is necessary, and - most importantly - be prepared to make a compelling legal argument to the judge as to why your should be awarded your disability benefits.
- You. You are the star witness at your hearing. This is your opportunity to tell the judge directly and in your own words why you feel you are unable to do any full-time work.
Most hearings last about 45 minutes to an hour. Dress comfortably. If it is difficult for you to sit on uncomfortable chairs, bring a pillow to sit on. If during the hearing you need to stand and stretch, ask the judge politely if you may do so. Answer all questions out loud: the hearing is recorded. If after the hearing, somebody needs to review the recording and they can't hear your answer because you just shook your head “no” when asked a question, it's as if you never gave an answer. Listen carefully to the question being asked you and let the judge complete the question before you give your answer: don't talk over other people as the recording will get all jumbled up if everybody is talking at the same time. Most importantly: answer all questions truthfully. This is not a test and there is no “wrong” answer. If you don't know the answer to a question, just say “I don't know.” If you don't understand a question, just say “I don't understand your question.” Its normal to be nervous in these types of situations and the judge understands that. Just take a breath. If you have a lawyer with you, the lawyer should be doing all the driving and you can relax, sit back, and watch the scenery go by. It will all be over before you know it.
After the hearing.
Usually it will take about 30 to 90 days after your hearing to receive a letter from the Judge informing you of the decision in your case. If the hearing decision is favorable, your claim goes back Social Security and they will send you a second letter explaining how much your back-benefit award will be (if any) and how much your checks will be going forward. If the hearing decision is unfavorable, you have the right to appeal the unfavorable decision and your lawyer can explain to you your best options at that point.
Your Social Security hearing is your opportunity to speak in your own words directly to a judge about what is going on in your life and why you need these benefits. The best advice on how to prepare for your hearing is to answer the questions as honestly as you can and speak directly to the judge from your heart.