As a Social Security benefits attorney from Hoglund Law Offices, I help hundreds of my clients across the country get through their Social Security hearings each year. You will get through it, too. Below are some things my clients know and do before their hearings that put them more at ease. As usual, make sure to get advice from an experienced attorney about your particular situation.
Since stress about your Social Security benefits hearing is about the unknown (beyond whether you will be approved or not), the more you know about your hearing day the better. Your attorney can explain where your hearing is, who will be there, and how long it may take. He or she should also explain the point of your hearing, and (with sufficient experience) possibly let you know your chances of approval. First, your hearing location.
Where is my Hearing?
Once the hearing office schedules your hearing, you (and your attorney) should get a letter explaining the time and place of your hearing (your “hearing notice”). Whether you have an attorney or not, you can drive to the location on a weekday a few days ahead of time to verify where it will be held. (A weekday is important because some hearing locations may not be open on weekends.) Once there, look at the surroundings. Know which floor and area to go to. Also anticipate practical concerns such as parking. These steps lower stress on your hearing day.
Visiting your hearing site before your hearing day is also useful because hearings are not always where you expect them — even knowing the address. Hearings aren’t always at a courthouse or a government center. And don’t assume your hearing is where you may have originally signed up for benefits. Hearings can, however, be in private office buildings, courthouses, city hall conference rooms, or even hotel conference rooms. I even attended one in a hotel room with the beds moved and tables set up! (For the record, it wasn’t very comfortable). So, pay close attention to the address and time of your hearing on your hearing notice.
I ask my clients to arrive at their hearings an hour earlier than the scheduled hearing time on the hearing day to avoid last minute problems. I had one client who got a flat tire on his way to his hearing, but was able to get help to change it and arrive at his hearing before the scheduled time!
A hearing tip: You may find the main hearing office phone number on the hearing notice. Wherever your hearing is (at a main location or at a remote location), you can keep this number handy to call and ask directions if you are stuck.
A final note about your hearing location. If you need to drive a distance that will be difficult for you, consider staying overnight at a hotel near (or at) your hearing location. It may be worth the cost to know that you will not miss your hearing the next day. (If you drive over 75 miles each way, check ahead with the hearing office about possible reimbursement for travel and the hotel). Our discussion next turns to who is at your hearing.
Who’s at my Hearing?
Another way to reduce the stress about your Social Security benefits hearing is to know who will be there. Your hearing notice can list the experts the judge wants at your hearing. Below is a list of the people at Social Security hearings and their roles. Keep in mind that one or both experts listed below may not be at your hearing.
(1) The Judge. There will always be a Social Security administration law judge (“ALJ”) running your hearing. He or she will almost always appear in person, though the judge can appear through live video or (rarely) by phone only. The judge needs to ask you questions about your past work, your medical problems that affect your ability to work, and your day-to-day symptoms.
(2) Hearing Assistant. The hearing assistant helps the judge record the hearing. He or she is physically at the hearing site. Among other things, the hearing assistant gathers last minute paperwork from you, brings you into the hearing room, and shows you where to sit. Only very rarely have I attended hearings without a hearing assistant on site. The only one I can recall was a hearing for a prisoner in the prison’s cafeteria. My client did not have any trouble finding that hearing location.
(3) Vocational Expert. This government-appointed expert answers questions at your hearing from the judge about jobs that may exist for you despite your medical problems. The vocational expert generally appears in person, but sometimes appears by phone. Your attorney, your representative, or you (if you are unrepresented) may follow-up with questions for this expert once the judge is done questioning.
(4) Medical Expert. This government-appointed expert answers questions at your hearing from the judge about either your physical or emotional condition(s). The medical expert, if there is one, generally appears in person, but he or she can also appear by video or phone. As with the vocational expert, your attorney, your representative, or you (if you are unrepresented) may follow-up with questions for him or her once the judge is done with questions.
(5) You (and perhaps a few others that know you). You should plan to be at your hearing in person. (Very rarely, I have had clients appear by phone. This is less than ideal, but better than nothing.) You can plan to bring your family and friends to the hearing location on your hearing day. Some of my clients also have their case worker or some other professional with them as well. It helps to have people you know with you at the hearing site. This reduces anxiety because people that care about you are with you. In the hearing itself, however, you might want to plan bringing only a person or two with you. In my experience, bringing more than a few people you know into the hearing room at one time tends to be distracting.
A word about witnesses. You should expect to answer the judge’s basic questions directly. Sometimes my clients want others to talk as witnesses — or even talk for them. Attorneys can differ, but I generally want my clients to explain why they can’t work in their own words. It’s OK. You don’t have to be perfect. So while other people may have some valuable things to say about you under certain circumstances, I tell my clients that the main goal of the hearing is to let the judge get to know you a little bit. To this end, the judge needs to hear from you. If you have an attorney (or representative), you can ask his or her advice before your hearing about how to handle witness testimony for your hearing.
Notice who is NOT on the list of people at your hearing above. There is no jury, no government attorney, and no public at your hearing. This is not People’s Court, it is your private hearing with your judge. Now, the next subject is easy.
How Long is my Hearing?
If you worried that your hearing would take all day or more than one day — you are in luck. I tell my clients that hearings generally take from 30 to 60 minutes. The specifics of your hearing may vary. For example, if your hearing is with a live judge and with no medical expert, your hearing may be more toward 45 minutes. Just know that you usually show up at your hearing once, explain your situation, and you are done. Follow-up hearings (called “supplemental” hearings) are relatively rare. Next, the main question that (justifiably) worries almost all my clients.
How Will I Know if I am Approved?
In my experience, you should not expect your judge to announce his or her decision at your hearing. There are exceptions, which an experienced attorney or representative can explain. If you have someone representing you, he or she may be able to give you some idea of your chances of approval once your hearing is done. Overall, I tell my clients to expect their hearing decisions by mail anytime from a few weeks to a few months after the hearing. This varies region by region. A regular hearing decision takes one of three forms: A win (“fully favorable”), a partial win (“partially favorable”), or a loss (unfavorable). If, instead, you withdraw your request for hearing (you should get advice on this situation from an attorney or representative), you will simply get a dismissal.
A special note: Make sure to note any special medical circumstances (such as terminal illness) or financial circumstances (such as a pending eviction or foreclosure) to your attorney or judge on the hearing day if waiting more than a few weeks for your hearing decision would impose a unique hardship. Now we get to the interesting potpourri of worries that (I am sometimes surprised) unnecessarily stress out my clients.
What my Hearing Isn’t About
Yes, there is a judge. And yes, you need to talk. But these hearings are private conference rooms. As mentioned above, there is no jury and no public. Also, there is no government attorney. You are not being grilled on a witness stand, you are not reciting exact dates, and you are not reading off your prepared statement. What you say, as a general rule, stays in the room. Your hearing is not televised on Court TV. The microphone in front of you does not broadcast out to the waiting room or some radio station. No one on the street can ask if you have been at a hearing, look at your medical records, or even know that you have a claim.
The hearing is about you being yourself. Now be forewarned, you can still have tough questions about some topics about your past that you would rather not talk about (such as previous convictions), but rest assured that these judges have heard it all. They also know when someone is dodging direct questions about things already mentioned in the medical record.
Now, the most important advice for my clients over my years of hearings: Tell the truth. Keep it straight and don’t embellish. Plan going into your hearing to simply lay out on the table what is (and isn’t) wrong with you. Then, let the judge do his or her job. Do not worry about whether your testimony sounds “disabling” enough. Your strongest ally (for your attorney, too) is the truth. If you know you have explained your situation the best you could, this has to be good enough. Know that your medical records carry the most weight, and that anyone representing you should be engaged and asking questions at the hearing. (If your attorney or representative wasn’t, ask why after the hearing. He or she can submit written argument after the hearing if the situation warrants.) Wait for your decision, and plan to appeal if necessary. You may also be able to refile a new claim as well (depending on your situation). Now, an inevitable question.
Should I Get an Attorney?
Although this section can seem self-serving, I will unlikely personally be at the hearings of many of you reading this. Therefore, I’d rather just lay this on the line.
If you read through this blog entry, you’ll notice that if you hire an attorney (or a non-attorney representative) to be with you at your hearing, you might have many of your questions answered before going into your hearing. This can reduce uncertainty about your hearing. Once at your hearing, going at it alone can be distracting and stressful. You would need to juggle understanding the issues, knowing your records, and critically listening to expert testimony — all while answering the judge’s questions. If you can go it alone (and some do), more power to you. But if you really want the best objective shot at getting approved (and you are trying to reduce the stress of the process), you should probably avoid doing legal surgery on yourself and look into getting help of some kind. Even if you plan to go it alone until the hearing day, you still have a right to change your mind before the hearing gets going. Just ask the judge to postpone your hearing once (for at least few weeks or more) so you can get help.
For those of you going ahead alone with your Social Security hearings, here are some ideas for you on hearing day:
Make sure your medical records are updated. If not, point out what’s missing and ask for time to get it after the hearing.
Make sure any medical expert testimony you hear includes all your medical diagnoses and limitations from each problem, such as no bending, etc.
Make sure any vocational expert testimony you hear answers questions that include all your real-life medical limitations that affect your ability to work full-time. These medical problems can include problems with attendance on “bad” days, trouble concentrating with pain, etc. A special note: Your need for childcare, your lack of transportation, your need for help finding or applying for open positions, or your minimum salary requirements are not medical limitations.
A judge once mentioned to me that he was nervous at his first hearings. And he ran them! So remember, the judges and everyone else at hearings are people going about their regular jobs. They have had hearings before yours, and will have hearings after yours. Some judges are informal, others are more formal. Just do your best to understand what will happen at your hearing with your judge, and hopefully the truth (with good advocacy) will prevail. If you meet the legal criteria for Social Security benefits, I hope you get them.
Andrew Kinney, Esq.
*If this blog post helped you get through your hearing, please feel free to submit a Comment below to help others know.
© Copyright Andrew Kinney, Esq., Hoglund Law Offices, PLLC 2010. Reprint by written permission only.