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What to Expect in a Social Security Disability Hearing

Our law firm will protect your interests throughout the SSDI process

You worked hard for years and paid into the Social Security system. Then, you became injured or ill and unable to work. You applied for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, but you were denied. Now what?

Fortunately, people whose disability claims are denied have recourse through the reconsideration and appeals process. One of the most important steps in this process is a formal hearing with a judge who can approve or deny your benefits. With the right attorney on your side during the process, you can put yourself in the best position to win.

What is a Social Security hearing?

A Social Security Disability hearing is a formal legal proceeding in which your SSDI application is reviewed, and a decision is made. Presiding over the hearing is an administrative law judge (ALJ), who works for the Social Security Administration but operates independently from the officials who approve and deny initial applications.

While you might be picturing a formal courtroom trial, an SSDI hearing is a smaller, more relaxed process. Many of these hearings are conducted online; when they are in person, they’re typically in a conference room, not a courtroom. The ALJ may or may not be wearing robes. There is no jury, and the proceedings are not open to the public; only participants and sometimes witnesses are allowed in the room. SSDI hearings are also much shorter than trials, typically 30 minutes to an hour.

How to request a Social Security Disability hearing

A hearing with an ALJ is the second step in the appeals process for a denied Social Security Disability claim. After your initial application is denied, you have 60 days to request reconsideration. During the reconsideration process, your application is reviewed by a different examiner and medical consultant than the ones who reviewed your original application. The new reviewers can also take into account any additional information you provide.

If your application is denied again on reconsideration, then you have 60 days from the day you received the reconsideration decision to request a hearing before an ALJ. To do so, you must submit Form HA-501, Request For Hearing By Administrative Law Judge. Additionally, you must submit forms SSA-3441, Disability Report – Appeal, and Form SSA-827, Authorization to Disclose Information to SSA, and potentially other forms as well.

What to expect in a Social Security Disability hearing

Again, an SSDI hearing is a more relaxed process than a trial, but it is still a formal legal proceeding. In the room will be the ALJ, a court reporter or stenographer, your attorney, and witnesses such as medical and vocational experts.

The ALJ will start the hearing by swearing you in and identifying everyone in the room for the record. The judge will then read a basic statement and ask you several questions about the facts of your SSDI case. Some of those questions will address your employment history, such as:

  • Are you now working? Have you attempted to work since your condition started?
  • What was the last job you had before you became disabled? What were your duties?
  • What was your job before that? Why did you leave?
  • What level of education and vocational training do you have?

Others will be about your disability, such as:

  • When did your medical condition or symptoms start?
  • How long can you sit and stand?
  • Are you able to bend and crawl?
  • Can you safely climb ladders and scaffolds?
  • Do you need to take unscheduled breaks because of your medical condition?
  • Do you have trouble concentrating or remembering?
  • How much can you lift? How much can you carry?
  • How long and how far can you walk? How long do you have to rest before you can walk again?
  • How much pain are you in, on a scale from 1 to 10? How often are you in pain? Do you ever experience more severe pain?
  • Do you need help with daily activities like dressing, bathing, cooking, and cleaning?
  • Are there activities you used to enjoy but can no longer participate in?

Some of these questions may seem very personal, but it’s important to answer them fully and honestly. Remember, the judge isn’t trying to deny your claim; they’re gathering the evidence they need to make a fair decision.

Next, the ALJ and your attorney will question any expert witnesses. For instance, there may be a medical expert to talk about your condition and prognosis, or a vocational expert who can explain why you are unable to work given your skills, experience, medical restrictions, and age. After the experts testify, the ALJ may ask you additional questions or whether you have more comments.

How long do you have to wait for a decision after a hearing?

It’s quite rare for an ALJ to issue a bench decision (that is, announce their decision at the end of the hearing). Usually, the judge’s decision will be mailed to you after the hearing, typically within 30 days.

What is the success rate in Social Security Disability hearings?

According to the Social Security Administration’s data, ALJs approve disability benefits in more than half of hearings. This is by far the best approval rate of any stage in the SSDI process.

That said, the approval rates vary widely from ALJ to ALJ and office to office. That’s one reason you need an experienced attorney advocating for your rights in your hearing and throughout the appeals process.

What can you do if you disagree with the ALJ’s decision?

If the ALJ denies your disability claim, the next step is to appeal to the Appeals Council. You have 60 days from receipt of the ALJ’s decision to file your appeal. The Appeals Council has discretion to either grant or deny your request for review. If they grant the request, they can affirm or modify the ALJ’s decision. They can also “remand” the case; that is, send it back to the ALJ for further review.

The Appeals Council’s decision can in turn be appealed to a U.S. District Court. Again, you have 60 days from receipt of the decision to file a civil action in federal court.

Why you need an attorney to represent you in an SSDI hearing

While you are not legally required to hire a lawyer for an SSDI hearing, it is always in your interest to have legal representation. An attorney can fill out the request for a hearing on your behalf and make sure there are no issues with the paperwork that could jeopardize your rights. An attorney can also make sure you hit all deadlines throughout the process; remember, if you miss a deadline, you will most likely have to start over from the beginning.

Most importantly, an attorney can make legal arguments on your behalf during the hearing to put you in the best position to win. An experienced SSDI lawyer knows what experts to bring in and how to effectively question them to present your case in the best possible light, as well as how to gather medical evidence that strongly supports your claim and is highly persuasive to the ALJ.

If your SSDI application has been denied, don’t go into a hearing without good legal representation. Remember, we handle SSDI cases on a contingency fee, which means you don’t pay us out of pocket; we only get paid if and when we win your case. Schedule your free consultation with an experienced disability lawyer at Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano LLP today.

Click here to download a printable PDF of this article, “What to Expect in a Social Security Disability Hearing.”