The Social Security Act and its corresponding regulations are a complex area of law, so it's always advisable to hire a lawyer for your Social Security disability hearing. Although the hearing process is informal (meaning you don't have to follow rules of evidence), you will still need to present a well-thought out case to the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) in order to receive disability benefits. Here are three important reasons why a lawyer should represent you at your disability hearing.
Questioning Expert Witnesses
Lawyers have been trained to questions expert witnesses at disability hearings. At your hearing, the SSA might bring a medical expert and/or a vocational expert.
Questioning a Medical Expert
At your administrative law hearing, the Social Security Administration (SSA) might call upon a medical expert (ME) to testify as to the severity of your disability. The medical expert will review the medical evidence in your case and offer an opinion as to whether you meet the requirements of a disability listing contained in the SSA's Listing of Impairments (known as the "Blue Book"). The listings describe a wide range of medical conditions and what requirements you must satisfy for each condition in order to be found disabled. Alternatively, the medical expert can give an opinion as to whether your condition should be considered equivalent to one of the disability listings.
The testimony of a medical expert can be crucial to your disability claim. For example, say you suffer from back pain. During the hearing, the issue could be whether you meet Listing 1.04, Disorders of the Spine, which requires an inability to ambulate effectively. If the ME testifies that your ambulation does not meet the criteria for Listing 1.04, your lawyer has the right to cross-examine the ME. Your lawyer can use legal training to:
- object to the ALJ's questioning of the ME
- object if the ME hasn't given sufficient weight to your doctor's opinion
- determine whether the ME has considered all available evidence, and
- determine whether the ME has correctly interpreted the listing requirements.
In addition, if no ME has testified in your case, a lawyer can present an argument as to why the hearing should be continued (delayed) to add testimony from an ME.
Questioning a Vocational Expert
The SSA usually will have a vocational expert (VE) testify at your hearing. The ALJ will rely upon the vocational expert's testimony to decide whether you can perform your past work and whether there are any jobs you can perform despite your disability. Your disability case will probably hinge upon the ALJ's finding of whether you are capable of performing any jobs.
It is very common that an ALJ will ask improper questions of a VE. Your lawyer can spot these legal issues and object to these questions during the hearing. Your lawyer also will be given the opportunity to ask additional questions of the VE to make certain the VE has considered all of your limitations resulting from your disability. Even if the ALJ eventually finds you not disabled, these questions to the VE can be used as a basis for future appeal.
Obtaining Medical Opinions From Your Treating Doctors
As a result of the SSA's own regulations, an ALJ will usually give greater weight to the opinion of your treating doctor than to the opinion of other doctors. Therefore, many lawyers spend considerable effort seeking out the medical opinion of your treating doctor on the issue of your disability.
A lawyer is helpful in your case because he understands the SSA's requirements for a finding of disability. He can then help your doctor craft a letter that addresses all necessary medical and legal issues. Or, your lawyer might prepare a written questionnaire (or RFC form) for your doctor to fill out that provides a way for your treating doctor to present a detailed medical opinion in accordance with the SSA's rules. It is important to note that the SSA generally allows no weight to be given to the opinion of your doctor if he simply writes that you "are disabled."
In addition, your lawyer can determine whether your doctor's clinical notes are sufficient proof of disability for your case, or whether your doctor's opinion needs further clarification to conform to the SSA's regulations.
Knowing the Local ALJ Who Will Preside Over Your Hearing
A disability lawyer will often be well acquainted with the ALJs in your area, and he will understand their customary hearing procedures. This knowledge can be very useful for your disability case. For instance, you might be assigned to an ALJ that is known to be tough on claimants who have had drug and alcohol issues. By having a lawyer who knows this information before the hearing, the lawyer can anticipate what types of questions the ALJ will ask and he can better prepare for those questions.
In addition, you might be assigned to an ALJ that prefers to conduct most of the questioning during the hearing. If so, your lawyer would understand that there are certain questions the ALJ normally fails to ask, and he can make certain those areas of testimony are still made part of your hearing record.
When to Hire a Disability Lawyer
It is best to hire a disability lawyer as soon as you know that you will need to appear before an ALJ in an administrative hearing. You will be given sixty days to file a Request for Hearing after you receive your denial of reconsideration. You probably don't need a lawyer before that point, because you might get disability benefits on your own, without having to share your disability backpayments with a lawyer.