When your Social Security disability case is finally scheduled for a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge, a “prep” appointment is typically scheduled with the disability attorney handling your case so you can discuss what to expect at the hearing and to review specific issues in your case. Even so, it never hurts to have a general overview in advance as there are many misconceptions for those who have never participated in an administrative hearing.
In the first place, hearings are ordinarily conducted in private hearing rooms in office locations for the Social Security Administration – not a courthouse. While some hearing rooms are located in the local Social Security office you are familiar with, most of the time the hearing location is a separate office where the only business conducted is disability hearings. You should pay careful attention to the written hearing notice you receive from Social Security as to the address of the hearing location to make sure you show up at the right place.
The hearing rooms themselves are smaller than an ordinary courtroom as the hearings are closed to the public. After all, your private medical information is being discussed at the hearing. There is no need for an “audience.”
Those present at the hearing typically include yourself, your disability attorney, the Administrative Law Judge, and a hearing assistant who typically makes a recording of the hearing and takes notes. Many times a judge will have an expert witness participate in the hearing, such a vocational expert or a medical expert. These witnesses provide testimony related to their areas of knowledge and they are questioned by the judge and your disability attorney. Sometimes the expert witnesses are present in person at the hearing, or they participate over the telephone, so they may be heard but not seen during the hearing.
While it is possible to ask a judge to allow someone to be present with you in the hearing room, such as a family member or friend, it is up to the judge whether to permit this. If they are allowed in the room during their hearing they are considered an “observer” and cannot help you to answer questions or comment in any way. They can only watch and listen during the hearing. If someone attends the hearing as observer, they cannot later be called as a witness.
An audio recording is made of all disability hearings. Usually there are microphones of some kind on a table in front of you. If you speak in a normal voice they are able to record what you say. Because the hearing is being recorded in this way, it is important to use spoken words for all of your answers. Instead of nodding your head for “yes” or shaking your head for “no,” you must speak those words out loud so your response is heard and recorded. If you are gesturing to a part of your body to indicate where you have pain or some other symptoms, just saying “here” will not be adequate. It is better to use specific language to reference that part of your body (e.g., my left elbow, my right knee, the back of my neck). If you forget, your disability attorney will remind you and make sure a good record is created which makes your testimony clear.
You and other witnesses will take an oath at the beginning of the hearing to tell the truth. It is important, of course, to always be honest and truthful. If you do not know the answer to a question, the honest response is simple that you do not know or do not remember. This is an acceptable response, even if you have to give it many times to different questions. Guessing should be avoided. If you do try to guess an answer, you should be careful to make clear you are uncertain and that you are simply providing your best guess. Generally it is best to stick with what you know and remember with certainty.
The only people questioning you at your hearing will be the judge and your own attorney. There is no advocate on the “other side” who will challenge you or your testimony in a hostile way. The judge is supposed to be neutral and your attorney is on your side. You should not expect the kind of confrontational questioning you might imagine in a normal courtroom, although some judges can be more aggressive than others. Your disability attorney typically will be able to warn you in advance regarding the demeanor and approach taken by the judge assigned to your case.
While the Administrative Law Judge in most hearings is present in person, there is an increasing number of hearings where the judge participates by video teleconference. These video hearings are not ideal and have many drawbacks, but they are sometimes worth agreeing to if it means a quicker hearing date. Insisting on an in-person hearing will sometimes delay when your case is heard, especially if you do not live near one of the main hearing offices. You and your disability attorney should discuss the advantages and disadvantages of any video hearing proposed by the agency.
If you need a break during a hearing, for any reason, all you need to do is ask. If you are uncomfortable and need to change positions, you are free to sit, stand, stretch, or move about near your chair as needed. You do not need permission to change positions. Unless you specifically ask for a break, you will be asked questions regardless of whether you are sitting or standing. It is actually quite common for those with pain issues to move about during a hearing.
Questions for you will typically fall into one of four areas (although they are not usually in any particular order):
1. Your past work and any work attempts you have undertaken since becoming disabled
2. Your diagnosed medical conditions, including any treatment you have tried so far
3. Your functional limitations (how your medical problems restrict you physically or mentally)
4. Your daily activities (how you spend your time during the day how your medical problems may limit these).
If there is any history of drug or alcohol problems, this will also be asked about and it is important to be just as truthful and honest regarding these questions as any other.
If a judge does not feel there is sufficient evidence for him or her to make a decision, they can order a consultative exam. This is a medical exam which Social Security would pay for. It could be a physical exam, a particular diagnostic test, or even a psychological evaluation. You should cooperate with any such exams. The judge will not issue a decision on your case until the exam report is received and added to the record. Your disability attorney is usually provided a copy of this new evidence and you have the option of requesting a supplemental hearing to discuss this new evidence if needed.
Typically, a judge does not announce a decision at the end of the hearing. Although there is a procedure for something called a “bench decision” where this is done, the ordinary practice of most judges is to issue a written decision which is sent by mail to you and your disability attorney following the hearing. How long it takes for that decision to written and mailed depends on the workload of the judge and their own work schedule. Sometimes a judge will predict how long it will take for them to get a decision issued.
Most decisions are received within 3 months of the hearing, while others are issued within weeks and yet others take much longer. Each judge and each case is different.
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