If the SSA decides that either you are not eligible for disability benefits, you are going to stop receiving benefits, or the amount of benefits you receive each month will change, you appeal the decision by requesting a hearing in front of an administrative law judge (ALJ). A hearing in front of a judge can seem intimidating, so we will discuss below what to expect and what you should do (and not do!) at your ALJ hearing.
Who Are ALJs?
ALJs are lawyers who work for the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR, formerly known as the Office of Hearings and Appeals) within the SSA. ALJs only work within the SSA. (Unlike other judges who work in courtrooms, ALJs do not hear criminal matters or any matters not within the power of the SSA.) There is no jury at an ALJ hearing. That means the outcome of the hearing is entirely up to the judge. While each ALJ is different, and of course the ALJ’s decision depends on what is in your file, in general, ALJs approve more disability claims than they deny.
After you request a hearing by submitting the proper SSA forms, the ALJ may decide to hold what is called a “prehearing conference.” These conferences are usually done by telephone. The ALJ does not have to hold a prehearing conference, but if the ALJ does, he or she will look to whether or not there is anything can be done to speed up the hearing process. The advice discussed below also applies to this prehearing conference.
What Not to Do at the Hearing
Don't be late for the hearing. Give yourself plenty of time to arrive at the hearing, and get directions ahead of time on how to get to the hearing location. You can find addresses and telephone numbers of the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review in your area on the SSA website, and you can get directions on the Internet or by calling the regional office. If you are late, your hearing may be canceled and it might be many months before you can obtain another one. If you do not show up for the hearing, your claim can be dismissed.
Don't bring an entire support group. If you need assistance, you can have someone with you, and of course if you have a disability lawyer or nonlawyer representative, he or she can be with you, but your hearing is not public, and you should not bring every friend and relative you have. If you bring someone with you for support, they cannot answer any questions for you. If you are not sure whether it is acceptable to bring a person for a certain reason, contact the hearing office before the hearing.
Don’t be melodramatic. ALJs are professionals who understand your frustration with your impairment but who also have seen and heard a lot of disability and pain. An ALJ will not be impressed by overdramatic sobbing or other emotional outbursts. ALJs do not look favorably on people who they perceive as “putting on an act.”
Don't lie. The ALJ will ask you questions, and you must answer truthfully. Do not lie, leave out important information, bend the truth, or try to use evasive language. Answer truthfully, and try to stick to the question and not go off on unrelated topics. While you should not be melodramatic and exaggerate your issues (as discussed above), do not be ashamed to admit all of the difficulties your impairment have caused you. The ALJ should hear about all of your limitations, even if they are difficult to talk about. The ALJ will not be able to make an informed decision about your impairments unless you are honest.
Don't be angry. If you are at the ALJ hearing level of appeal, that means your claim has been denied a couple of times already (at the initial application stage and the reconsideration review), and you may be rightfully angry and frustrated. Do not curse, yell, or threaten anyone.
Don't be disrespectful. The ALJ hearing is very important, and you should treat it as being very important. Do not answer your cell phone (in fact, make sure it is turned off completely), read a book or magazine, chew gum, eat food, or do anything else that may be taken as disrespectful and distracting. That being said, try to be comfortable and be yourself.
Don't go forward without an interpreter. If you requested an interpreter, make sure one is there. If English is not your first language, you had the option of requesting an interpreter when you requested the hearing, and you should have done so. If you requested an interpreter but there is not one there when you show up for the hearing, ask the ALJ to reschedule the hearing as soon as possible.
After the Hearing
The ALJ will not give you a decision at the end of the hearing. The ALJ will write up a decision explaining the reasons your claim is being approved or denied. Many ALJs will have a written decision in about two months, but it depends on the specific ALJ and his or her workload. The SSA will send you a copy of the ALJ’s decision. If the ALJ denies your claim, you can request a review with the Appeals Council.