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Social Security Disability Hearings Before Administrative Law Judges

Recently, there has been a lot of talk in the news about the administrative law judges that hear Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) appeals. Certain groups are criticizing the system, stating that some judges have much higher approval ratings than others. Yet, while the judge is one factor in an SSD appeal, winning your appeal depends on a variety of factors.

How can you increase your chances of winning your SSD appeal? What can you do to prepare for your Social Security hearing with an administrative law judge?

First: The cases that win appeals are the ones that fit most closely into the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) stringent requirements. This means:

  1. The disability meets the SSA criteria listed in the Bluebook (Listing of Impairments).
  2. There is strong evidence showing that the disability will last for at least a year or be terminal.
  3. The evidence clearly shows that the applicant is unable to work due to the disability.

Clear evidence is perhaps the number one factor separating a successful disability case and an unsuccessful one. Do not manufacture evidence. Instead, you will want to provide the judge with paper evidence of your disability / illness, including medical records and medical opinions. You will also want to take time to understand the strengths and weaknesses of your case.

About the SSD Administrative Hearing

There are multiple layers to the Social Security Disability process. After an initial application has been denied, a different claims examiner reconsiders your claim. If this process (called “reconsideration”) also leads to a denial, then you can petition for a hearing with an administrative law judge. You must request this hearing in writing within 60 days of the reconsideration denial.

The Social Security disability hearing is usually not an adversarial hearing. The judges are generally respectful people who are sincerely interested in listening to what you have to say. In fact, administrative law judges approve more than half of SSD applicants at this level of appeals.

At the administrative hearing, the judge will talk to you about your case (and the issues involved) and will ask you questions. Usually, administrative law judges ask claimants questions about how their disability affects their daily life. The judge and your SSD lawyer may also question a witness (if you have brought a witness to the hearing) and medical experts / vocational experts.

You will probably not receive the administrative law judge’s decision at the hearing. It can take anywhere from one week to 90 days for you to receive the decision. The judge can choose to:

  1. Approve your entire disability in a fully-favorable decision
  2. Approve your disability claim for a shorter amount of time than you requested in a partially-favorable decision
  3. Deny your application in an unfavorable decision
  4. Dismiss your case if you file a request for hearing past the statute of limitations (60 days), withdraw your case or you fail to appear at the hearing

If the judge denies your application, you and your SSD lawyer may choose to appeal your case in federal court.

Video Hearings

In 2011, administrative law judges held more than 129,000 video hearings. This number is increasing — the SSA expects that more than 140,000 video hearing will occur in 2012. The SSA hopes that this option will reduce processing times. Usually, administrative law judges can schedule Social Security Disability video hearings faster than in-person hearings.

When claimants choose to use the video hearing conference option, they go to a convenient hearing site near them and communicate with the administrative law judge through videoconference equipment.

In all other ways, the video hearing is exactly like the in-person hearing. You will be able to see the judge and all other participants in the hearing over a large TV screen, and everything you say will be confidential. It is important to dress nicely and prepare as though you were going to an in-person hearing.

How an SSD Lawyer Can Help During Your ALJ Hearing

It is not necessary for you to have a lawyer represent you during your SSD hearing, but it is strongly recommended. Having a Social Security Disability lawyer on your side can help you present your case more favorably to the judge. He or she can help you gather paper evidence, prepare for your hearing and evaluate your claim. Your SSD lawyer will also ask questions that help clarify your disability at the hearing, which could provide the administrative law judge with the information he or she needs to approve your application.

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