What should I expect at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge?
Well, the time has come for your Social Security hearing! You have waited so many months, possibly even years, to get to this point. What will happen now?
Fortunately, by the time your hearing has been scheduled, you should have already retained an experienced Social Security attorney, who will sit down with you and review all of your information with you prior to the hearing. Your attorney should be familiar with your case to know exactly how to prepare you for what to expect. While each case is different, there are certain things that you should know when it comes to a Social Security hearing before an Administrative Law Judge:
- Social Security hearings are informal. There is no opposing attorney to cross-examine you. The legal term for a Social Security hearing is "non-adversarial", which means that the typical rules of evidence and typical court room formalities will not be strictly enforced. Your information will be presented to the Administrative Law Judge by your attorney, you may be asked various questions by both the judge and your attorney, experts may be present at your hearing and both the judge and your attorney will have the opportunity to question the expert, and the judge will close the hearing.
- Social Security hearings are private. They are typically held in hearing rooms about the size of a conference room, or in a court room, that is closed off from the public. The only people that are allowed into the hearing are those who are invited by the Administrative Law Judge. Typically those people who are present at a hearing are: the judge, you, your attorney, a hearing reporter to keep a record of the hearing, and perhaps a Medical Expert and/or a Vocational Expert. Most judges will not allow friends or family members of the claimant to be present in the room. If a witness is needed at your hearing, whether or not that witness is in the hearing room with you during the hearing will be determined by your particular judge. Each judge has his or her own preferences at to the witness process.
- Social Security hearings are recorded. This is an audio recording, not a video recording. The microphones provided in the hearing room are only there to help with the recording. They do not amplify or make your voice louder. You must speak loud enough for everyone in the hearing room to hear you. Also, because the hearing is recorded, you must answer questions verbally, meaning you do not shake your head to indicate a "yes" or "no" answer.
- You should be prepared to discuss your work history over the past 15 years. Your attorney will have access to your work history report and other documentation that Social Security has acquired to assist you with this point. Your work history should be discussed briefly. You may also be asked why you left a particular job, whether you performed it on a full or part time basis, how many hours per week you worked, your rate of pay at the job, and whether or not you would be able to perform that job now. If you have had many jobs over the previous 15 years, you may not be able to remember all of the details of each job. That's ok! Your lawyer should be able to assist you with the names of each employer based on the documentation in your Social Security file. You are only required to give the information that you remember.
- Be prepared to identify all of your current medications and their side effects. Some claimants are more comfortable writing their medications down or taking their bottles to the hearing. Either option is permissible. Speak to your lawyer about your particular Administrative Law Judge's preferences on this point. Side effects are extremely important because they may cause a limitation for a job. For example, pain medications that make you drowsy or that cause frequent urination are vocationally significant. However, you do not experience any side effects, be honest and tell the judge that you do not experience any side effects if and when you are asked.
- Be prepared to list all of your current medical conditions that cause more than a minimal limitation on your day-to-day activities. You should speak with your Social Security attorney regarding which medical conditions warrant discussing at a hearing. Traditionally, minor conditions, such as erectile dysfunction, hysterectomies, controlled asthma, controlled/benign hypertension, and controlled seizure disorders would not warrant discussion beyond a mere mention. Again, some claimants are more comfortable writing a list of each medical condition they have. However, a prepared Social Security attorney will know each condition and will remind you of any that you may forget. Your Social Security attorney and your Administrative Law Judge expect you to be nervous at your hearing. You can only testify as to what you know, how you feel, what you experience, and what you believe to be correct. Nobody expects you be a doctor or to be able to use medical terms during a hearing.
- Speak with your lawyer about whether or not a witness may be necessary in your case. If your conditions cause you to have asthma attacks, seizures, depression or anxiety, it is often helpful to have a witness describe these events or symptoms to the Judge.
- Ask yourself this question: If you were given a job where you could sit or stand at will, lifting no more than 10 pounds on a regular basis, not making any complicated decisions, (such as a ticket taker at a movie theater or a hand packager or a telephone operator) would you be able to do that job? This is typically the hurdle that we have to jump in a Social Security hearing. Your lawyer can help you with this question and other similar questions that may be posed to you during your hearing.
- Never answer a question with a nod, head shake, or "uh huh", as these answers are not understood on the recording. If your answer is "yes" then say "yes". Also, if you do nod, your attorney should say something along the lines of, "let the record show that the claimant is nodding in agreement of the question." You can see how this may complicate a hearing. Also, be descriptive in your answers. If you have pain in your lower back, say you have pain in your lower back. Do not point to your lower back and say, "I have pain here". Again, the recorder is audio only, not video, and the recorder will not know where "here" is.
- Remember that a hearing typically lasts about an hour, depending on your Administrative Law Judge. That means that your case must be well prepared by your attorney prior to the hearing, submitting any written arguments on your case before you ever get there. An hour is a very short time period to discuss all of your conditions and all of the limitations your conditions cause. A well-prepared Social Security attorney knows how to keep the hearing concise, yet thorough enough within the allotted time, to win the case.