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What will my disability hearing be like?

This is a common question for clients, many of them are nervous and anxious about their hearings.  I also get asked if the client will have to speak and the answer is always YES!  While there will be other people talking at your hearing, the majority will come from you.

Social Security hearings are more informal than regular court.  I describe them more as a conversation.  They are held in closed rooms with you, your attorney, a hearing reporter who records the hearing, the judge and any experts the judge has asked to attend.  Most judges do not let in your family or friends at all.  Many judges will not allow anyone but yourself to testify.  This is why you may want those witnesses to write letters for you or your attorney to submit prior to hearing.

How the case proceeds depends on the judge. First the judge will swear in you and all the witnesses and go over any preliminary matters with you.  This includes explaining that the judge is not bound by the previous findings at the initial and reconsideration levels and what issues are in front of the judge.  The judge may ask your attorney to waive the reading of these issues, which they will do when you have discussed them beforehand.  Then the judge will generally ask your attorney if they would like to make an opening statement.  Not all attorneys will do that.  In my cases, I almost always make a statement, telling the judge the key evidence that supports a finding of disability, any issues in the case like a date last insured in the past or an unsuccessful work attempt or work after onset, and all the ways the judge could use to find the client disabled – which listings they may meet, at what level they need for a grid rule to apply or if they are unable to sustain employment.  By doing so I give the judge where I am headed with the case and the Judge knows we are aware of those issues that may affect eligibility.

Some judges will ask all their questions first and then let your attorney question you.  Some will have your attorney question first and then follow-up.  I have even run into judges who will do basic questions and past work, then ask the vocational expert to answer questions about past relevant work before going back to the attorney.  This part of your hearing may take about 30-45 minutes depending on your case.  There may be several rounds of questions from the judge and the attorney, but just remember you always get the last say.
After both the judge and your attorney have finished questioning you, the Judge will begin to question any expert witnesses invited to the hearing.  If you have both a medical expert and a vocational expert, the medical expert will go first.  With both experts, the judge will first ask them if they have any questions for you.  Sometimes they will or they will need something clarified.  You will then answer their questions or your attorney will.  With the medical expert, the doctor will summarize your medical records, giving the doctor’s opinion on whether you meet any listings and what restrictions on work activities they think you may have.  Once the judge is finished, your attorney (or you if choose to represent yourself) will get to cross-examine the doctor.  Don’t be surprised if the expert’s testimony is favorable to your case that your attorney choose not to ask them any question.  But if they do some questions they may ask include

1) questions about the doctor’s specialties especially if his/her opinion differs greatly from your treating doctor who is a specialist

2) questions about medication and side effects

3) questions about the impact of return to work on your symptoms

4) if your complaints are common for the objective evidence or your condition

5) if the frequency in which you see your doctor is common for your condition

and other condition specific questions

Once the medical expert (if any) has testified, the judge will then question the vocational expert.  This is the part where many clients get lost because the VE will use a lot of numbers that both your attorney and the judge furiously jot down.  Everyone will use jargon that you will be unfamiliar with and it is easy to become confused.  The VE will first testify about your past relevant work (if they haven’t already) and classify it according to the Dictionary of Occupational titles for work and skill level.  Then the judge will begin asking hypothetical questions to the VE about a made up claimant with certain limitations.  The VE will answer whether that worker could do your past relevant work and then whether or not that worker could do any other work and if so what work.  The judge may ask 1 hypothetical question or 15, it is entirely up to them.  Once the judge has finished, then your attorney (or you if you choose to represent yourself) can ask questions to the VE.  This may include more hypotheticals or it may be questions about the answers the VE has already given, or both.  In some cases the attorney will ask no questions because the VE’s responses support a finding of disability.

At the end of your hearing, the judge may tell you they are going to approve your case.  Sometimes this will be done by what’s called a bench decision.  This is when the judge reads the decision into the record and it helps to speed up the processing of your claim.  Usually you will get a copy of that bench decision either at the hearing or by mail in a few days.  If the judge does not do a bench decision, then you will have to wait for a formal written decision to be issued, even if the judge indicated they would award your case.  On average you will receive the decision within 60-90 days.  But it can sometimes be sooner and many times be later than that.

Most hearings take about 60-90 minutes.  There are many things that can happen in a hearing that are not mentioned and but most go like I described above.

Is your case up for hearing? Don’t go it alone, contact me for a free consultation.