Most Social Security disability claims are denied at the initial application stage. These claims can eventually proceed to a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). It’s important to prepare for your hearing.
First, let’s revisit the Social Security Disability appeals process for a quick refresher.
Different Types of Appeals
Once you have made the decision to appeal a denied claim, you’ll have access to four different levels of appeals. Let’s review Social Security’s definition of each type of appeal below:
Reconsideration: A reconsideration is a complete review of your claim by someone who did not take part in the first determination. During this process, Social Security will look at all the evidence submitted in the original determination plus any new evidence. Reconsideration can be medical or non-medical depending on the reasons why your claim was denied at the initial step.
Hearing by an Administrative Law Judge: If your claim is denied at the reconsideration level, you can request a hearing conducted by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) who had no part in the original determination or the reconsideration of your case.
Appeals Council Review: If your claim progresses to a hearing with the ALJ and you disagree with their decision, you can request an Appeals Council Review. The Appeals Council looks at all requests for review. It may deny a request if it believes the hearing decision is in accordance with Social Security law and regulations. If the Appeals Council decides to review your case, it will either decide your case itself or return it to an administrative law judge for further review.
Federal Court Review: Finally, as the last step in the appeals process, if you disagree with the Appeals Council’s decision, or if the Appeals Council decides not to review your case, you can file a civil suit in a federal district court. This is the last level of the appeals process. It’s important to note that if you’re working with a representative, it’s best to work with an attorney, not just a disability advocate, who can file a lawsuit accordingly.
You can find more information about what to do if your claim is denied here.
What Happens During a Hearing?
Once your claim progresses to the hearing stage, you are assigned an ALJ at a hearing office within 75 miles of your home. In most cases, your hearing will be in-person. Sometimes, a judge from outside of your area may be assigned to your claim due to a local backlog. In that case, you will appear in-person and your assigned ALJ will appear by videoconference.
If you do not wish to appear by videoconference, you can decline in favor of an in-person hearing. In most cases, we encourage claimants to decline videoconferences.
(Of note: COVID-19 has changed normal operating procedure for hearings. We are participating in hearings by telephone this year. You can learn more about how that’s going here.)
The hearing begins with the ALJ introducing the participants. Typically, those include the Judge, a hearing reporter and a vocational expert. If you’re working with a disability lawyer, your lawyer will also be on the call.
Next, the ALF administers an oath to the claimant and the vocational expert. This oath requires both participants to tell the truth under penalty of perjury. If a claimant is not working with an attorney, the Judge begins by reading the issues at hand.
These issues are located in the ‘Notice of Hearing’ document that you receive in advance of the hearing. If you are working with a disability lawyer, your lawyer will have typically discussed this with you in advance. Your lawyer may ask the Judge to waive their reading of the issues.
Next, the Judge formally admits the evidence submitted as part of the claim. The Judge will ask the claimant if the record is complete.
Social Security Disability Judges Have Preferences
What happens next will vary by Judge. Some Judges will ask your disability lawyer for an explanation of your case, similar to an opening statement. Others may not.
Regardless, the hearing will eventually progress with the Judge asking for the claimant to testify. Sometimes the Judge will do the majority of the direct examination. Sometimes the Judge will allow your disability lawyer to do the direct examination. Either way, your attorney will be given an opportunity to ask you questions during the hearing.
Next, the Judge will question the vocational expert as to the work you have done in the past. They will also talk to the vocational expert about other jobs you could perform given your impairments. Your attorney may also question the vocational expert. Some Judges will also ask your disability lawyer for a closing statement.
Once the hearing ends, the Judge will consider the evidence and testimony she heard and make a decision on your claim. It is very rare for a Judge to tell you during the hearing whether she has made a decision or not. You will be notified by mail. In most cases, you can expect the Judge to release her decision in 90 days or less.
We don’t recommend claimants appear in hearings without a good disability lawyer. Lawyers get to know Judges over time and are familiar with their hearing procedures and preferences. They are also professionally trained in collecting and submitting evidence, in questioning you, and in cross-examination of the vocational expert.