What is the Social Security Disability Hearing Process?

The Social Security disability hearing process can be long and complex. There’s also a lot of room for error. Attorneys who do not typically practice disability law can make mistakes in the process that can irreparably harm your claim. If you handle the hearing on your own without an attorney then you can irreparably harm your claim.

The Social Security disability hearing is also normally the last point in the process in which you can add evidence. Too many times, people who have lost at the hearing level have asked me to help them fix their case. Sometimes I can. Other times, I can’t. If I can’t, it’s ordinarily because something was done wrong at the hearing level. Thus, in many ways, this is the single most important level of the disability process.

After representing thousands of disability claimants at Social Security disability hearings, we have compiled answers to common questions we receive from our clients.

What happens after I file a Request for Hearing with an Administrative Law Judge?

After you receive a denial on your Request for Reconsideration, you have 60 days to file a Request for Hearing with an Administrative Law Judge. Once you file a Request for Hearing, your file is transferred to the Office of Hearing Operations which will schedule and conduct the hearing.

This also starts the hearing preparation process on our end. Once we file your Request for Hearing, we’ll get access to your Social Security file. We have full access to your file electronically so we can see everything that was used in your application and reconsideration. This will tell us exactly what we need to do in order to properly prepare your case for hearing.

We will send you treatment status updates to make sure we have your most recent medical treatment documented. We may also send you a “medical source statement” for your doctor to complete.

How long does it take for Social Security to schedule a hearing?

The times vary from hearing office to hearing office. Generally, it takes somewhere between 6 and 18 months. I know that’s a big range. If you’d like to know the average wait time for your specific hearing office, the Social Security Administration keeps very good data and its very accessible. You can look up the average wait time for your hearing office here.

Where will my Social Security disability hearing take place?

The easiest way to find out is to ask us. We can generally tell you what office you will be assigned to based on your home address. Keep in mind that some hearing offices have satellite hearing locations. Thus, finding out your assigned hearing office doesn’t mean that you’ll have your hearing at the main office.

If you’d like to find out your assigned hearing office, there is a two step process. First you need to determine your local Social Security office. You can find that out here. Once you figure out your local office, you can use that to find your assigned hearing office here.

But as I said, you can just ask us.

How long does it take for an ALJ to issue a decision on my Social Security disability case?

There are a number of factors that affect how long it takes an ALJ to issue a decision. For example, any of the following factors can affect the timeline:

  • The ALJ;
  • The hearing office;
  • The time of year;
  • The complexity of the case;
  • The size of the record;

I typically tell my clients 4-6 months is average. It may be done sooner. It may take longer. There’s not much I can do to push the ALJ to make a quicker decision and frankly, this may not be in your best interest. The last thing you want is to rush the ALJ. You may be rushing them to make the wrong decision.

What are the odds of winning my disability case at the hearing?

Every case is different. There are so many factors that can affect your case that it’s impossible to predict. I can normally tell you the strength of your specific case after I review your file. If you’d like to have a discussion about your case, let me know.

That being said, one of the biggest indicators is the individual ALJ’s statistics. That is not to say that this will have any bearing on your particular case, but rather, is just a general idea of how your particular ALJ tends to rule. Those statistics are publicly available here.

We don’t like to discuss odds because it makes it sound like your case is a game of chance. We prepare all of our cases to the best of our ability regardless of the strength and regardless of the ALJ assigned. That’s the only way to properly represent you.

What happens if I win my disability case at the hearing?

You will be issued a Notice of Award which calculates your benefits and you will receive payment for your back benefits. It used to be that the Notice of Award was issued first and then payment, but nowadays, my clients have been receiving their benefits before receiving the Notice of Award.

We like to review the Notice of Award for you to make sure you were not underpaid. We’ve had clients who have had incorrect benefit calculations and we’ve had to get those issues correct.

Our fee is typically paid directly by Social Security so you normally don’t have to worry about that.

What happens if I lose my disability case at the hearing?

You do have the right to appeal the decision. If you lose, you have 60 days after receiving the unfavorable decision to file a Request for Review with the Appeals Council.

Even if we think we’re going to win your case, we also have to preserve issues for appeal. We’re always thinking two steps ahead. It’s like playing chess. Sure, we want to win the hearing. But if we don’t, I want to make sure we can win at the Appeals Council or in Federal District Court.

It’s not over until it’s over.

Not only that, sometimes, we can re-apply for benefits. We don’t always recommend this because you may be losing out on some benefits. We would discuss with you whether we should appeal, re-apply, or both. Every case is different and you shouldn’t make this decision without an attorney.

How should I prepare for my Social Security disability hearing?

One of the main reasons to hire a Social Security disability attorney is so that your attorney can prepare your case for you. You really shouldn’t have to worry about this part of the process. That being said, we will need your help putting together the list of doctors you treated with. We will get your medical records for you, but we don’t know who you treated with unless you tell us.

We will also need a “medical source statement” in most cases. This is a form your doctor completes that explains to the judge your functional limitations. A letter saying you are disabled is not enough. A judge is not bound by your doctor’s opinion on disability. In some cases, however, a judge may be bound by a doctor’s opinion regarding functional limitations. Functional limitations are things like your ability to sit, stand, walk, lift, carry, reach, handle, finger, etc.

Evidence is generally due five business days prior to the hearing. This deadline is very important.

How to Prepare for My Social Security Hearing - Pennsylvania Social Security Disability Attorney

What happens at the Social Security disability hearing?

Every judge is different so while the basic outline of a hearing is the same, each judge has his or her own process. It’s important to discuss the specifics about your judge with your attorney.

In most cases, the judge and your attorney will address some administrative issues first:

  • Is the record complete?
  • Do you object to any exhibits?
  • Do you waive a reading of the issues?

Then your attorney would ordinarily make an opening statement. This is where your attorney explains to the judge the specific provisions in the law that make you disabled.

From there, the ALJ will ordinarily ask you questions. Your attorney may ask you some follow up questions. We cover the contents of your testimony below.

There may be expert witnesses at your hearing. There may be a vocational expert who answers questions about jobs in the economy. There may be a medical expert who answers questions about your medical conditions. Every case is different. If there is an expert witness in your case, your attorney should be prepared to cross examine that expert.

After all the testimony is complete, the judge may ask for a closing argument. This is where your attorney applies the testimony of the witnesses to the provisions in the law which would render you disabled.

What to Expect at My Disability Hearing - Pennsylvania Social Security Disability Attorney

How to testify at my Social Security disability hearing?

Social Security disability hearings are informal, but that is not to say that what you say isn’t important. Here are some of the things you should consider when testifying.

Treat the Judge with Courtesy

It is understandable that you are angry by the time you get to the hearing. You’ve been denied benefits twice. It may have taken a year or two. You may have run out of money. You’re struggling. It’s frustrating and we get that. However, you should still be courteous with the judge. This is the person who is going to make your decision. You may be mad, but it’s not the judge’s fault – it’s the system’s fault.

You don’t have to use “lawyer” words or know specific medical terms. You should just be nice to the judge – like you’re talking to a friend.

Testify Truthfully

Truth is important. For the most part, the judge is not trying to trick you. The judge is just trying to find out more about you. Don’t worry about analyzing the questions. Just answer truthfully. If there’s a problem, your lawyer will step in. You just need to be truthful and credible. Don’t exaggerate your symptoms, but don’t downplay them either. Tell the judge the truth.

Here’s an example. Let’s suppose the judge says “do you cook meals?” Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. Maybe you cook microwave meals only because you can’t stand in front of the stove. Those are all good answers if they’re truthful.

Don’t put on an act. If you normally use a cane, then use one at the hearing. If you normally don’t use a cane, don’t bring it to the hearing. Just be yourself. Don’t pretend to cry or pretend to be in more pain than you are.  On the other hand, don’t suffer silently or minimize your problems when you tell the judge how you feel.  If you need to take a break from the hearing, ask the judge for permission.  If you are uncomfortable sitting and it would help to stand up for a while, you may do so and you should not be embarrassed about it.

Tell Your Story

This is your chance to talk to the judge. This is your opportunity to explain why it is that you can’t work.

Here’s how I typically explain it. The judge will have your medical records. The judge knows about your conditions. You don’t have to tell the judge what your conditions are. Instead, the judge wants to know how your conditions affect you. In other words, how is it that your condition prevents you from working.

Many people think that since they are dealing with the government, they should keep their mouths shut, give the shortest possible answers and not volunteer anything.  Although this is usually a good approach when the government is trying to do something to you, the opposite is true when you are asking the government to do something for you.  You need to provide enough facts, details, and explanation in your testimony to make it clear to the judge that you are disabled.  Details win cases.

Here’s an example. If the judge asks “do you wash dishes?”, you might be tempted to answer “yes” and leave it at that. However, in reality, you can only wash dishes for ten minutes at a time because your back hurts and you need to take a break. It takes you several 10 minute stints to wash the dishes and afterward you’re so drained that you have to take a nap. Do you see the difference? “Yes” doesn’t tell the whole story.

Contact ARM Lawyers today

Never hesitate to reach out to our office during any part of the process. We can skillfully guide you through everything, step by step. If you’re already a client, great! Call if you need us. But, If you aren’t a client, that’s ok too! Call for a free consultation today.