Order in the court! Order in the court!
Objection Your Honor! Relevance?….. Sustained!
These theatrics may bring to mind scenes from old legal movies, Law & Order episodes, or other personal experience. However, disability hearings are quite different. They are intentionally set up to be “non-adversarial”, or neutral, in their process. An ALJ is directed to act as a fact finder reviewing the evidence before them, with the ability, and in fact, the responsibility, to review that evidence through fresh eyes, regardless of any decision made by the agency earlier in the process.
Your attorney attends the hearing with you and there is no attorney on SSA’s “side”. A vocational expert or medical expert are sometimes used by an ALJ during a hearing to answer questions about job requirements or specifics about medical conditions. Neither of these parties make the decision in your case; however, they do provide information to the ALJ that can be for or against your case.
Once the hearing begins, the ALJ will confirm some basic background information like your SSN and birthdate. He or she will address any technical issues with your attorney and determine if any evidence is missing. The ALJ may then ask LOTS of questions! They may be about your past work, your education, living situation, income sources, medical conditions, legal history, drug or alcohol abuse, medical treatment, daily living challenges, etc. Anything noted in your medical file can be discussed. Sometimes the ALJ directs your attorney to ask you these kinds of questions first and then follows with questions of their own. The order does not matter, but the answers and details do! You should always be direct and honest when answering questions, or risk the ALJ not trusting your information, and therefore not trusting you.
After you have provided your testimony, the ALJ will move on to either the medical expert or vocational expert, or both. They will be asked for their opinions, based on their own review of your records, of what limitations you would have based on your medical conditions and testimony. The medical expert can suggest limitations in your ability to walk, stand, sit, lift and carry, bend or reach, climb, crawl, be exposed to a variety of environmental situations, use your arms/hands, hear, and see. Most ALJs do not have medical experts at their hearings. Most ALJs DO have vocational experts at their hearings. These individuals respond to very specific questions the ALJ asks them about a person’s ability to perform a variety of work DESPITE several restrictions the person has.
Typically, the ALJ will not provide a decision about your case at your hearing. They will take some time after the hearing to review their notes about your medical file, your testimony, and any testimony from experts. Ultimately, they will use all that information to draft a written decision, mailed to you and your attorney several weeks later.
A thorough and thoughtful attorney will speak with you before your hearing to go over all these things and answer questions you may have. Remaining in good contact with your attorney’s office is critical to a successful attorney/client relationship, complete record, and smooth hearing.