If you have ever applied for Social Security Disability benefits you certainly know it is not a quick process. In fact it is quite long and cumbersome. Quite possibly the longest part of the application process is waiting for a hearing. Not everyone requires a hearing, but most people do. When you apply for disability benefits there are three basic stages. The first is called the initial application. This is when Social Security reviews your claim for benefits, considering whether you meet the technical and medical requirements of the program. If you are denied at the initial application stage then the next stage would be to request reconsideration. Meaning, you are asking Social Security to re-look at their previous decision to consider whether they made a mistake. If you are denied again, the third stage would be to request a hearing before an administrative law judge. When you request a hearing, you are essentially given a number in line. Once your number is called you will be given a hearing date. The average wait time to receive a hearing date is 16-18 months. This is why this is considered to be the longest part of the process. Most people wait a total of 2-3 years before having a hearing on their disability claim.
Once your hearing is scheduled there are several things that should happen. The first is you will receive a notice of hearing in the mail. This notice will address the date and time of the hearing, the Judge you are scheduled with, and whether there are any witnesses scheduled to attend the hearing. If you have a social security disability attorney representing you, then your attorney will be working on getting all of the relevant medical evidence submitted prior to the hearing. This needs to be done 5 business days before the hearing. If you do not have an attorney representing you, then you will need to make sure you have all of your medical records from your disability date though the present. If you have not obtained your medical records this will further delay receiving a decision on your claim. At the hearing, the Judge will then request the updated medical records which will take additional time before they will be able to make a decision.
On the day of the hearing, you should plan to arrive 30 minutes prior to the scheduled time for the hearing. If you are unrepresented, the hearing reporter will show you a copy of your CD, which contains all of the documents associated with your claim. At that point, you will have an opportunity to review the documents for accuracy and see if anything is missing. If you are represented by an attorney, your attorney will more than likely want to spend a few minutes with you before entering the hearing room going over last-minute details for the hearing.
Once your hearing starts there are two potential scenarios. If you are unrepresented, the Judge will give you a final opportunity to obtain legal counsel before proceeding. If you wish to proceed without an attorney then the Judge will simply begin asking you questions. The questions will start off very basic in terms of your biographical information. The Judge will then ask you questions about the last time you worked. You will need to answers questions regarding your work history going back fifteen years. This is because when Social Security is determining if you meet the medical definition of disability they need to know the jobs you have held for 15 years prior and whether you have the capabilities to return to that type of work.
After testimony is completed regarding your work history, you will be asked why you are unable to work. Sometimes the question can be asked in terms of what are your disabling conditions. Either way, this is the part of the hearing where you would need to explain to the judge exactly what is physical and/or psychologically posing a barrier for employment. This is not a time to be shy or quiet. This is your opportunity to plead your case or to explain what struggles you face.
Most people find this to be the most difficult aspect of hearing. As mentioned above, you have waited 2-3 years for this hearing. In that time frame, you have surely made accommodations for your conditions such that you probably do not think about your limitations on a daily basis. For the purposes of the hearing, the Judge needs to know why it is you feel you are unable to work. This is why it is important for you to thoroughly explain your position.
After testimony is taken regarding why you cannot work, the Judge will more than likely shift his/her focus to the vocational expert. Vocational experts are not required to appear for every hearing. But more often than not a Judge will request a vocational expert. The purpose of this individual is to classify the work you have done in the past fifteen years using the dictionary of occupational titles. The Judge will then ask the vocational expert based on a hypothetical individual with certain physical and/or psychological limitations if that person could perform their past work. If the answer is no then the Judge will ask if there is other work that is possibly available that could be completed with those limitations. If the answer is again no then you have won your disability hearing. Once testimony is completed with the vocational expert then the hearing will be closed.
If you are represented by an attorney for your hearing, the above description will happen slightly differently. Having an attorney present at your hearing ensures the right questions are asked in terms of why you cannot work. It also ensures the appropriate testimony is given to the Judge. Meaning, your attorney will know the pertinent questions to ask and the important information the Judge would need to know to make a decision on your claim. With an attorney at your hearing, the attorney will likely ask you most of the questions. In terms of the vocational expert, this will happen the same way as above except that your attorney will have an opportunity at the end to do a cross-examination of the witness.
Because these hearings take a significant amount of time to schedule there tends to be a lot of tension and build-up to the actual hearing date. It is in your best interest to hire an attorney to represent you at this hearing. Not only will your attorney make sure the appropriate evidence is considered, but your attorney will also set expectations for the hearing and will argue on your behalf. If you have a hearing date and you are not currently represented, I urge you to reach out to an experienced SSD attorney.