If you have been denied Social Security Administration disability benefits at the Reconsideration level of your claim, then you can file an appeal for a hearing in front of an administrative law judge (ALJ). The hearing is the first time during the course of your claim that you have the opportunity to speak with the person making the decision in your case.
Once your appeal has been completed, your file will be transferred to the local Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR). Cases are scheduled for hearing based on the order they are received by the ODAR office, as well as the location and availability of the ALJ. In most states, it can take more than a year for a hearing to be scheduled. The ODAR office will mail a notice to you regarding the date, time, and location of the hearing, once it has been scheduled. This notice must be issued at least 20 days prior to the hearing. An acknowledgement will be included with the hearing notice for you to sign and return indicating that you are aware of the hearing and will attend. If the hearing date does not work for you, then you must notify the ODAR office immediately. Your hearing will be rescheduled only if you can show good cause for not attending (i.e., a previously scheduled medical appointment, etc.). The ALJ assigned to the hearing will determine whether it will be rescheduled. It is important to attend your hearing on the scheduled date and time to avoid the possible dismissal or delay of your claim.
If an unforeseen event causes you to miss your hearing (i.e., a death in the family, severe illness, poor travel conditions), then you must provide a statement of good cause to the ALJ. If the ALJ does not agree that you had a good reason for missing your hearing, your case could be dismissed rather than rescheduled.
Hearings are scheduled at the nearest hearing location to you. This can be at the ODAR office, a local Social Security Administration (SSA) office, or at a federal courthouse. Hearings may be held with an in-person judge or via video teleconference. It is your right to object to a video hearing if you prefer to have a “live” hearing.
You are responsible for finding transportation to your hearing. ODAR will not provide this for you. If you must travel more than 75 miles one way to your hearing, then you may be eligible to receive mileage reimbursement.
It is important to arrive at the location of your scheduled hearing at least 30 minutes prior to the hearing time. If you have a representative or attorney, this time can be used to review your file and discuss what to expect during the hearing. If you do not have representation, you can take the time to review the medical evidence contained in your exhibit file.
ALJ’s are federal judges who hear only Social Security Administration disability cases. They are knowledgeable about Social Security disability laws and criteria. They will review your medical evidence prior to the hearing and may call upon experts to provide testimony at your hearing. The ALJ will listen to your testimony regarding how your medical conditions affect your ability to work.
Two types of experts often are called to provide testimony at hearings. The first is a Vocational Expert (VE). A VE typically will be present during a hearing (unless the hearing is for a child). VE’s are knowledgeable about the different types of jobs that exist in the national economy, as well as the functions necessary to perform a job successfully. A VE may appear at your hearing in person, via video teleconference, or over the telephone. He or she will do an analysis of your file prior to the hearing to outline your past relevant work (substantial work that was done in the past 15 years). The judge will ask the VE hypothetical questions regarding your limitations and whether they would prevent you from performing your past work or other work.
The ALJ also may ask a Medical Expert (ME) to testify at your hearing. An ME is a doctor who is familiar with medical conditions pertinent to your case. Just like the VE, the ME may appear at your hearing in person, via video teleconference, or over the telephone. He or she will review your medical records prior to the hearing and will testify as to whether your conditions meet the medical criteria for disability under the Social Security Administration. Your limitations, as a result of your medical conditions, also will be discussed.
Prior to giving testimony, you will be sworn in under oath. The ALJ may do most of the questioning, or may ask your representative to do so, if you have one. You will be asked about your past work, when your disability began, the limitations you have because of your conditions, and the medical treatment you have tried. Your answers should be truthful and informative. The hearing will be recorded, and you will be speaking into a microphone. It is important to give a verbal response — not just a shake or nod of your head. It is okay to point to a pain location on your body, for example, as long as you also include adequate and accurate testimony. If you do not understand a question that is asked of you, then ask for clarification. If you do not know the answer to a question, simply state that you do not know. You may request a witness to provide testimony at your hearing. This person also will be sworn in under oath before testifying.
If you have a disability representative or attorney, he or she will question you about your medical conditions, and solicit information from any experts testifying at your hearing. Your representative likely will offer an opening or closing statement to the ALJ stating why you are disabled and citing supportive evidence in your file.
Typically, you will not know the outcome of your hearing until a written decision is received from the ALJ after the hearing is closed. This can take several weeks to several months. In some cases, ALJ’s issue a “bench decision.” This is when they state, on the record, that they will be awarding you your Social Security Administration disability benefits.