Finally, the wait is over. Your Notice of Hearing has arrived in the mail. Now that you have a hearing date, it is important that you and your Social Security disability appeal are ready to go before the judge. Here are some tips to help you prepare for this big day:
Review Your Social Security File before your Social Security Disability Hearing
The administrative law judge (ALJ) will base his or her decision on your testimony and the information contained in your Social Security disability file (called an “ODAR” file because it originates with the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review). Your file includes:
- Your medical records;
- Forms you have completed;
- The opinions of your Disability Determination Service examiner; and
- Information and opinions concerning your functional capacity.
Before the hearing, it will be important for you (and/or your Social Security disability hearing attorney) to review your ODAR file.
If you are unrepresented, Social Security should send you a copy of your file on an encrypted compact disc. (Since this disc contains sensitive information, keep it in a safe place and never download the information to a public computer!)
If you are represented by a Social Security disability hearing attorney, your attorney will have access to your file (usually through a highly-encrypted online portal). Your lawyer will review your file, but may ask you for updates on your conditions and treatment. Typically, the Social Security Administration stops developing your file once your claim is denied. Since you likely have been waiting many months for your hearing, this means that there may be a good deal of evidence missing from your Social Security file. Review your entire file to determine what evidence is missing. A detailed review may also bring to light procedural or factual errors that support your claim for benefits.
Once you know what evidence is missing, you must provide Social Security with this information. (You have a duty to give all evidence to the ALJ — including information that is unfavorable to your claim for benefits.)
Simply updating the medical records in your file may not be enough to win a claim for Social Security disability benefits. You also may need to submit:
- Residual functional capacity assessments;
- Letters or sworn testimony from doctors;
- Vocational and occupational information; and/or
- A legal brief or written argument supporting your disability claim.
Since every case is different, your evidence should be tailored to your claim and situation. For example, if you have been working a part-time job, you should consider getting information about your performance, accommodations, and absenteeism from your current employer. This information will help the ALJ understand how your conditions impact your functional abilities.
Most Social Security disability claimants testify at their hearings. Depending on the judge, the testimony may be brief or may be lengthy and detailed. Typically, you will testify about:
- Your work experience and education;
- Your living situation and family;
- Any current income sources;
- Your medical conditions and symptoms;
- Methods of treatment and medications (including side-effects);
- Daily activities and hobbies; and
- Substance abuse or use (if this is part of your history, noted in your records).
Be prepared to discuss all of these issues at your hearing. Consider using a symptom and activity diary in the weeks leading up to your hearing. In a notebook or calendar, make a few notes each day about your:
- Symptom severity;
- Activity level (what you are able or unable to do); and
- Any changes to your treatment methods (increased medications or rest periods, for example).
This diary will help you provide accurate and detailed testimony at your hearing. It may also help you identify triggers that worsen your symptoms (such as increased activity, stress, or dietary changes).
At most Social Security disability hearings, there are typically three to six people in attendance. Each person has a specific role and is bound by privacy and confidentiality rules.
At your hearing you will interact with:
- The ALJ: An administrative judge who is an employee of the Social Security Administration. The judge’s job is to evaluate your claim and make a new and independent finding regarding disability.
- A Hearing Monitor: Typically a contract worker who operates a recording system and takes notes for the ALJ. The hearing monitor will not discuss the case with the ALJ and does not help with the decision-making process.
These two individuals are present at every Social Security hearing. Additionally, the following people may be present at your hearing:
- A Social Security Disability Hearing Attorney: Your Social Security disability hearing attorney, if you have one, will attend the hearing and guide you through the process. Unlike the other people in the hearing room, your lawyer is your advocate and is on your side.
- A Vocational Expert: This witness has expertise in classifying jobs and job searches. He or she may describe your past work, based on its physical and mental difficulty. The vocational expert may also advise the judge about work that may be available to you, within certain restrictions.
- A Medical Expert: The medical expert is a physician who will review some of your medical records and provide his or her opinion about your diagnoses and their severity. Medical and vocational experts are supposed to be neutral. Depending on the facts of your case, expert witnesses may not be present at all.
Preparing a Social Security claim for a hearing is time consuming and requires a detailed legal and medical analysis. The more you know about the hearing process and the type of evidence that will be persuasive to the ALJ, the stronger your claim will be. Having an experienced Social Security disability hearing attorney on your side can make all the difference. If you would like to speak with a knowledgeable Social Security disability hearing attorney, please contact us by phone or by submitting the email form on this page.