After you have applied for disability benefits, your claim will be reviewed by the Disability Determination Services office in your state. An examiner will be assigned to your file. The examiner and a doctor will review the medical evidence in your case and the claims you have made about your symptoms and how they impact your ability to function. The examiner and doctor will determine whether the evidence supports a finding that you are disabled based on the regulations that the SSA must follow.
If your claim is denied at this level (known as the initial level), the next step in most states is to request “reconsideration” of your claim. Be advised that there is a very limited window of time in which you are able to request reconsideration. At the reconsideration level, the process is the same as at the initial determination level, however, a different examiner and doctor are tasked with reviewing the claim.
Finally, if your claim is denied at the reconsideration level, you can ask for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge.
The SSA employs judges who hear nothing but disability cases. At the hearing level, the judge assigned to your case will become familiar with your medical records and your disability case file prior to your hearing. The judge does not have to accept any of the findings made by the doctors and examiners at the initial or reconsideration stages. Instead, the judge may examine your case through an independent lens. At the hearing, the judge will ask questions about your work history, your disabilities, your daily activities, and your medical treatment. You are not required to have an attorney or representative present on your behalf, but it is a very good idea for several reasons. Namely, your attorney will know what medical issues and testimony will be the most relevant to the judge. Your attorney can ask you questions during the hearing to help you explain your limitations and will channel this discussion towards the most important factors for the judge. The judge will use the assistance of a vocational expert (an expert on different jobs and what is required physical and mentally for their performance) to understand the nature of your past work and whether someone with limitations like yours could still perform this work or applicable other work. The judge and your attorney can both ask the vocational expert questions at the hearing. The judge will make a decision based on both your medical records and the testimony in the case.