Navigating the Disability Hearing with an ALJ
For most people, the most nerve-wracking part of a disability claim is going to a hearing in front of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). It is a wide misconception that the hearing will proceed as seen on TV, with a crowd of people watching and a jury of your peers to decide your fate. Surprisingly, disability hearings are much more casual than this, but still very important!
Preparing for the Hearing: Location, Travel, and Arrival
In Cleveland, hearings take place at the Office of Disability Adjudication & Review (ODAR), located in the Skylight Office Tower building downtown. Traveling into a big city can be daunting for people not accustomed to all of the crowds, traffic and noise, so driving with someone who is familiar with the city is a big help. It also eases some of the fear associated with the whole experience of going to the hearing. We always recommend someone drop you off before parking the car to make sure you get to court on time, as getting lost or not finding parking easily is frequently raised by our clients.
Upon entering the reception area of the office, which is a rather large room, you must let security check you and make sure you are not bringing in weapons or any other illegal items. Always bring a picture I.D. because you won’t be let in through security otherwise. Once you are cleared, you proceed to the waiting area until you are called into the courtroom. If you have representation, typically this is where you will meet up with him or her. It is always good practice to arrive at the office at least a half-hour prior to the hearing to go over any last minute items with your attorney and make sure you are as prepared as possible.
Inside the Hearing Room: Setting and Participants
The hearing monitor will call you when the ALJ is ready. The rooms in which the hearings are held are about the size of large living rooms. The far side of the room is raised for the ALJ’s desk. In front of him are tables or desks fit together so that the people sitting at them are facing each other or the ALJ. You and your attorney sit directly across from the ALJ.
Besides the person recording the hearing using a special computer program, other people you may expect to see are experts. You may have a vocational expert (VE), a medical expert (ME), both or none, depending on the facts of your case and what the ALJ feels is necessary to help him/her make a decision. A medical expert would testify to your medical impairments and how they adversely impact work-related activities and whether the complaints of pain are reasonably related to the objective medical evidence or the underlying conditions. The vocational expert will testify to past work; specifically work performed in the past 15 years and whether the profile set forth in a hypothetical question submitted by the ALJ can perform that type of work or other jobs with the same functional limitations.
The Hearing Process: Questions and Topics Explored
Typically, the hearing starts with the ALJ briefly summarizing the claimant’s case. He or she then requires the claimant and any experts to take the oath to be truthful with their testimony. Then, if the claimant has representation, the representative will give an opening statement in support of the claim for disability. The ALJ then gives the representative the opportunity to question the claimant. Sometimes the ALJ asks the questions of the claimant, and allows the representative attorney to ask follow-up questions.
The questions posed to the claimant by the ALJ or the representative will vary based on the facts of your case, but typically include activities of daily living; how much you can lift, carry, push, pull, stand, walk, any manipulative limitations involving reaching, handling, gripping, grasping, fingering; any postural limitations including stooping, bending, kneeling, crouching; any environmental limitations including inability to be around gases, fumes, perfumes, machinery, etc; any communicative limitations including inability to see, hear or speak well; it addresses any mental impairments including problems with social functioning, limitations regarding concentration, persistence and pace and any side-effects of medication and any need for assistive devices . The ALJ will then turn to the experts and direct questions to them. The claimant’s representative also gets an opportunity to question the experts (this is called cross-examination).
After all the pertinent questions have been asked, and the ALJ is satisfied with the amount of information that was provided, the representative is usually given the opportunity to give a closing statement. This typically summarizes the important facts of your case and addresses what the ALJ should note in particular. After all is said and done, the hearing is over, usually in an hour or less, but sometimes two hours depending on the facts of your case and the particular ALJ.
After the Hearing: Waiting for the ALJ's Decision
Many claimants ask if the ALJ renders the decision right then and there after the hearing. Occasionally this does happen, and that is referred to as a Bench Decision. Usually, however, the ALJ will take approximately 30 to 90 days to mail the decision to you, sometimes longer, depending on your case. You must wait for the written decision to be sent to you; neither SSA nor ODAR will tell you the result of the ALJ’s decision over the phone.
Outcomes of the ALJ's Decision: Fully Favorable, Partially Favorable, and Unfavorable
If you receive a Fully Favorable decision from the ALJ, congratulations! Your long road to obtaining benefits has finally come to an end. If you receive a Partially Favorable decision, meaning the ALJ found you disabled on a different date than you had claimed, or an Unfavorable decision, meaning the ALJ did not find you disabled at all, not to worry. If you disagree with the ALJ’s decision in part or in full, you can appeal both Partially Favorable and Unfavorable decisions to the Appeals Council.
The Importance of Representation for Disability Hearings
This blog article is a brief summary of what to expect at a disability hearing. Since the facts of your case may be much more complicated, it is advisable to obtain representation well before you go to court. Then you will have someone knowledgeable right by your side, every step of the way, to guide you through the disability process with much more ease and likelihood of success.
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