What to Expect at Your Social Security Disability ALJ Hearing

Here are some answers to common questions about the Social Security Disability hearing and the ALJ.

The fear of the unknown can produce a lot of anxiety. Hopefully this article can give you a better understanding of what might take place at your ALJ hearing. Although every hearing is different, and each judge has his or her own way of doing things, there is enough commonality in the hearings that you can have some idea of what it will be like. I will answer the most common questions people have:

1. What should I wear?

I tell everyone to wear what you normally wear if you went to the grocery store. Don't feel the need to dress up, and certainly don't dress down. You don't have to wear a suit or a formal dress. Blue jeans, dockers, etc. is certainly fine. These hearings are not like a full, blown-out trial that you see on TV. They are far more informal. That being said, I would try to be respectful in the clothing you choose, as well as being neat and clean.

2. What will they ask me?

A good attorney will go over this with you before the hearing and let you know what to expect. Each judge is different. Some like to ask most of the questions; others leave it almost entirely to the attorney to ask you questions. It really doesn't matter too much who asks you the questions, because most judges follow closely to the same script for questioning; and most attorneys roughly follow that order. Typically, the questioning starts off with your background information (who you are; family; where you live; age; education, etc.). Then the questioning usually goes into your work history (what types of jobs you did; what you had to do on the job; why you left the job, etc.). After that, the discussion usually turns to your medical impairments (what medical problems do you have; what you can/can't do physically and mentally; pain; other limitations, etc.). Finally, there may be some questioning about what you do on a typical day (hobbies, friends, chores, etc.) This is how the typical questioning would go.

3. Do I have to remember specific dates?

A good attorney should have all the relevant dates at his/her fingertips, leaving you without having to worry about remembering these things. I usually ask a question this way, “Mr. Smith, on your disability application you stated that you became disabled on 01/01/2010; is that date correct?” Obviously, the question itself gives you the date and all you have to say is “yes” unless what is written in the file is wrong.

4. How long does the hearing last?

Typically the hearing will last 30 to 45 minutes.

5. Will the Judge swear me in?

Yes. The ALJ will ask you to take an oath or affirm to tell the truth.

6. Is there any attorney from the government there?

No. These hearings are non-adversarial. There is no opposing party. You are essentially presenting your case to the judge who is deciding whether to accept your claims or not.

7. Who is in the hearing room?

You and the administrative law judge, obviously. A court reporter (hearing assistant). Your attorney, if applicable. And possibly a medical expert and/or a vocational expert.

8. What does the medical expert or vocational expert do?

The medical expert (ME) is there to give the judge an expert opinion as to your medical conditions. The ME usually lists the claimant's impairments which he/she considers medically determinable and severe and then gives an opinion as to whether the claimant's condition meets or equals a medical “listing.” The vocational expert (VE) is there to testify about jobs. Usually the VE will classify all your past work and then answer “hypothetical” questions from the ALJ regarding whether someone with certain limitations can perform your past work and/or other available jobs.

Your attorney should be able to ask the experts any needed questions. Usually you don't communicate directly with the experts and they usually don't testify until the very end of the hearing. I usually tell my clients that by that point in the hearing they can just relax and zone out for a while while the judge, myself and the expert talk.

9. Do I find out whether I won or lost at the hearing?

Usually not, but sometimes the ALJ will let you know. Most of the time you'll have to wait a month to 6 weeks for a decision in the mail.

10. What should I do to prepare for the hearing?

Your attorney should go over the main issues in your case prior to your hearing. What I tell my clients is just relax and try to get a good night sleep before. The hearing will be over before you know it. They usually whiz right by once you are in there. I also make the comparison that it is like going to see your doctor. Essentially you are telling the judge what is wrong with you; what you feel like; and what you can and can't do physically and mentally.

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