What to Expect at Your Social Security Hearing

November 21, 2016

Many people are surprised to learn that a hearing to determine whether or not they will be awarded Social Security benefits for their disability is typically short (usually in the range of 15 minutes to one hour) and somewhat informal. Without a doubt, however, the hearing is the most important part of your disability claim, so being thoroughly prepared is essential to maximizing the impact of a short hearing.

At the hearing your case will be heard by a United States Administrative Law Judge who will decide your claim either in person or by video (although you have the right to request an in-person hearing). The hearing will be held in a conference room not a courtroom or courthouse. Other people in the hearing include a court reporter, and often a vocational expert, and perhaps a medical expert. The judge will have reviewed your medical records and any medical opinions prior to the hearing.

Social Security does not have a government attorney argue against the claim but the judge needs to look at the case from all sides to determine if your disability prevents you from returning to your old job or, in Social Security’s words, finding “other work in the national economy”.

How long the hearing lasts will depend on the judge, the complexity of the case, and other factors. The judge and your attorney will ask you questions during the hearing. Each judge has a different style of questioning.

Topics covered during your testimony will likely include:

  • Your age, education, and living arrangements.
  • The date you last worked and the reason you stopped work.
  • A review of all your work for the last 15 years, the physical requirements for each job, the technical or skill requirements for each job and why the job ended.
  • The discussion of your medical conditions will include your symptoms, treatment and work limitations. You will be asked about each one of your medical problems individually with questions about how long you have had the problem, what doctors you have seen for the problem and how the problem affects your day-to-day functioning as well as your ability to perform work-related activities such as walking, standing, sitting, bending, climbing, crawling, lifting and carrying and using your arms and hands.
  • If one of the conditions that affects your ability to work is a mental impairment, you will be asked to explain how the mental impairment affects your ability to understand, concentrate, socialize and respond to ordinary work pressures, including interactions with the public, coworkers, and supervisors.
  • The judge will want to know why you can’t return to your past work and why you can’t perform other work.

The patience of the given Administrative Law Judges can vary widely; unfortunately, they can grow numb to what appears on the surface to be the same story. One of the principal challenges of Nash attorneys, and one we take very seriously, is to help ensure that the ALJ avoids deciding this most important part of your life in a hasty or formulaic manner.

Once your testimony is complete, a medical expert may testify in person or by phone. The medical expert has never examined you; the expert will have only reviewed your medical records.

The judge will ask the medical expert questions. The medical expert will offer opinions about work limitations based on the severity of your medical conditions.

Finally, a “vocational expert” may testify. The judge will ask the vocational expert if an individual could work with the limitations the judge believes you have. Sometimes the judge believes that you are as limited as you say, other times the judge may not believe you are as limited. Either way, the vocational expert will respond if there are any jobs that exist with the limitations described by the judge. Remember, neither the SSA nor the ALJ have to find you the job.

Usually you will not receive a decision at the hearing. More typically your decision will be in writing and will take from 30 to 60 days or even more from the date of your hearing to receive. The length of time you have to wait for a decision can vary greatly from one judge to another. A copy of the decision will be mailed to you.

A couple of key pieces of advice to keep in mind:

  • Since the hearing is short, show up on time. In fact, we recommend that you arrive 30 minutes ahead of your hearing.
  • If you are late the judge may refuse to hear your case. If you aren’t familiar with the location of the hearing, consider a “dry run” before the hearing so you are familiar with the route and how long your travel time will be.
  • Disability hearings are somewhat informal, so you can dress normally, but no revealing clothes, distracting/excessive jewelry, goofy hats/shirts.

Bottom line, here are the two most important things you need to know about your Social Security disability appeal hearing: One, it is your best opportunity to present your case for benefits and two, for that reason, thorough preparation is critically important. At Nash Disability Law, we are Chicago lawyers, so we can meet our clients in advance of the hearing and carefully prepare for the hearing.

If you are disabled, unable to work and are considering applying for Social Security disability or have been turned down for benefits, contact us for a free evaluation of your situation.