What to Expect at a Social Security Disability/SSI Administrative Law Judge Hearing
Part 3, What Happens During My Social Security Disability/SSI Hearing?
My prior posts in this series focused on preparing for an Administrative Law Judge Hearing, and what to expect the day of your hearing. This post focuses on what happens during the hearing. Unfortunately, every hearing experience is unique because there is no set structure that Administrative Law Judges must adhere to during a hearing. I normally provide my clients with a list of general topics that are discussed at an ALJ hearing, and provide specific information about the Judge assigned to their claim. (This is one of the reasons that it is helpful for you to be represented at the ALJ hearing. If your attorney is familiar with the Judge, they can describe any nuances of the particular Judge assigned to your case, so that you are better prepared for your hearing.)
General Areas that are Covered During Your Administrative Law Judge Hearing
- Introductory Questions. The Judge normally asks you general information to confirm your identity. This includes your date of birth, Social Security Number and your mailing address. The Judge will normally also ask about any current income and your marital status.
- Work Activity. The Judge asks you for details about all jobs you have performed in the past 15 years. The Judge needs you to describe your job responsibilities, how long you performed the job, and needs to know how much weight you had to lift in order to perform the job. Information is also obtained about any work you have performed since you applied for disability benefits. (If you are currently working, the Judge will have questions about your current work activity.)
- Why You Cannot Work. The Judge will ask you to explain to him/her why you are applying for disability benefits. They are looking for information about the medical condition or conditions that are limiting your ability to perform work. It is important to express the limitations that you experience that would make it difficult to perform work on a regular basis and to explain how your work ended.
- Description of Treatment. It is important that you are able to provide details to the Judge about the current treatment that you are receiving, and any treatment you have received since your disability began. The Judge is normally concerned about the medications you have tried, physical therapy completed, any surgical procedures that were performed, and any hospitalizations required.
- Daily Activities. It is important that you describe activities that you perform on a day-to-day basis. The Judge wants to understand what it is about your activities that makes you different from individuals that are currently maintaining employment. It is important to be prepared to answer questions about how you spend your day, about your hobbies, and the places you travel. Judges are normally looking for detailed answers in these areas, and it is important that you remember to describe any rest periods that are necessary to perform your activities.
- Functional Limitations. The Judge will ask you to describe how often you can perform various physical activities. The Judge asks questions about how far you can walk, how long you can stand, and how long you can sit. It is important to know how much weight you can lift, and what position you are in for most of the day. Be prepared to provide answers with specific durations of time you can perform activities when these questions are asked.
- Problematic Areas in Your Social Security Record. The Judge will have questions about inconsistencies between your testimony and your medical records, problems with noncompliance of treatment, and questions about any alcohol or substance abuse. Be prepared to provide honest explanations regarding potential problems with your claim.
- Expectations for the Future. It is common for the Judge to ask you whether you plan to return to work. Plans for future treatment, job training or education are also relevant to discuss. You normally have an opportunity during the hearing to briefly explain the impact your disability is having on your life, and what your goals are for the future.
Your attorney will have an opportunity to ask you additional questions if you are represented. Normally attorneys only ask questions that were not covered by the Judge, but some Judges ask the attorney to ask all questions during the hearing. I use your hearing as an opportunity to ask questions that resolve conflicts in your records and to provide the Judge with a better understanding of your limitations. If there are problems with medical records, I normally want my clients to have an opportunity to explain those problems, even if the Judge did not address the problems.
Experts present at your hearing are normally called to testify after your testimony is complete. This testimony is used to help the Judge decide your claim. There is usually no reason for you to directly interact with the experts during the hearing. They are there to provide details based on the medical evidence already in your file and the testimony provided during your hearing. (Experts are not present to provide you with job training, advice on how to obtain work, or to provide treatment or medical advice.)
- If a Vocational Expert is present, the Judge will ask the expert to describe the past work that you performed, and explain the skills and physical requirements of the work. The Vocational Expert will provide testimony to the Judge describing your work as you performed it and how it is normally performed in the national economy according the Dictionary of Occupation Titles.
- The Judge may also ask a hypothetical question to the Vocational Expert describing limitations that a hypothetical individual suffers and asking if any work is possible with the limitations described. The Judge will ask the Vocational Expert to consider the impairments that the Social Security Administration determined exist, and also any additional limitations the Judge believes are present based on your testimony and your updated medical information.
- It is normal for a Vocational Expert to provide testimony that jobs are possible based on the medical reports that the Social Security Administration previously used to deny your claim. In order for you to have a realistic possibility of being approved, it is important that the Vocational Expert indicates that no jobs are possible based on the limitations that you describe during the hearing, or that your doctors have described in written opinions.
- If you are represented, your attorney has an opportunity to ask the Vocational Expert follow-up questions. I usually ask the Vocational Expert if you could still perform any jobs provided to the Judge if additional limitations were considered, or ask if an individual could perform work based on limitations that your treating physician has indicated that you have.
- Medical Experts are used when a Judge needs additional medical information and the details in your file are not sufficient to resolve medical issues.
- Normally a Medical Expert is asked to describe your medical condition based on reviewing your medical records, and to provide opinions about the severity of your condition.
- The Medical Expert is usually asked if your condition and medical records establish that you meet a medical listing, and to describe the evidence that they used to make that determination.
- Attorneys are also provided an opportunity to ask follow-up questions of the Medical Expert. I usually ask a Medical Expert questions to clarify testimony that has already been provided. I want to make sure that the Medical Expert has reviewed all evidence that is in my client’s file, and ask questions about whether it is reasonable for my client to be kept out of work based on the treatment received. (Medical Experts are rarely used in Delaware.)
End of the Hearing
After all testimony is provided, the Judge normally will allow your attorney to make a brief closing argument on why you should be approved for benefits. If all your records have already been provided, the Judge closes your Administrative Record. The entire hearing takes between 30 to 90 minutes, and it is rare that a decision is issued the day of your ALJ hearing.
If the Judge requires additional information after the hearing, the record may be left open for you to submit additional documentation from your treating physicians.ï¿½ It is also possible that a Judge could schedule you for a Consultative Medical Examination or request additional testing.
Depending on the Judge assigned to your claim, you may receive the decision anywhere from a week to a year after your hearing. Judges have as long as is necessary to issue a decision on your claim. In Delaware, it usually takes an average of 45 to 90 days to receive an ALJ decision. The decision is usually between 8 to 20 pages long, and provides a detailed explanation of the decision the Judge made and the evidence that was used to issue the decision.
The purpose of this post was to provide you with a general overview of what to expect during your Administrative Law Judge hearing. My final post in this series will provide you with tips for making the most out of your hearing. If you have questions about any of the information provided in this post, please use the comment area below. Since this is a public website, please do not include any information in your question that would personally identify you.
- Questions Generally Asked During Social Security ALJ Hearing
- Social Security Best Practices for ALJ Hearing
- Office of Disability Adjudication and Review Hearing Office Locator
- Dictionary of Occupation Titles
- Part 1, My Social Security Disability Hearing Was Scheduled, Now What?
- Part 2, The Day of Your Social Security Disability Administrative Law Judge Hearing
- Part 4, Tips for an Effective Social Security Disability Administrative Law Judge Hearing
This article was written by Steven Butler. Steven is a partner at Linarducci & Butler, PA and his practice is limited to Social Security Disability/SSI claims. Steven offers free initial consultations for Social Security Disability/SSI claims to residents of Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. To schedule a consultation with Steven, please use the Linarducci & Butler Contact Form or call 302-613-0707 to schedule an appointment.