Social Security Disability Hearings
A Social Security disability hearing is held in front of an administrative law judge (ALJ). It is much less formal than a court hearing, and is non-adversarial. That is, there is no lawyer representing the Social Security Administration who appears to present SSA’s side. Indeed, SSA claims that it doesn’t have a “side.” The agency views its role as providing benefits to those claimants who are disabled and denying benefits to those who are not. It is the ALJ’s job, as a neutral fact-finder working for a neutral agency, to inquire fully into the disability issues and find the claimant disabled if the claimant meets the requirements for disability set forth in the Social Security Act.
For the most part, ALJs fulfill the neutral fact-finder role, granting disability benefits to about 60 percent of all claimants who appeal to the hearing level. There are, of course, individual differences among ALJs. While all ALJs view themselves as neutral fact-finders, some are harder to convince than others. Some have low approval rates, while others are quite generous.
When preparing a case for any ALJ, your attorney will gather and submit medical records, medical opinions and other documentary evidence before the hearing (and after the hearing, if necessary), present witnesses’ testimony at the hearing and examine witnesses called by the ALJ (cross-examining them, if necessary), and present the your case in its best light to show that you are disabled under the law. It is part of your attorney’s job to avoid treating the ALJ as an adversary, even when your lawyer is arguing that the ALJ is wrong about the law or facts. In fact, opportunities to present an argument to an ALJ arise more often with the very good judges, the ones who will tell you when they have a problem with a particular aspect of your case. They tell your attorney this in order to give your attorney the opportunity to argue for your position. Even with judges who are more difficult to convince, it does not help for your attorney to treat a judge as an adversary.
You may appear in person before the ALJ or by video teleconferencing, though you are not required to appear by video if you do not want to. At a hearing before an ALJ, evidence may be received even though it would not be admissible in court under the rules of evidence used by courts. Strict deadlines for submitting evidence generally do not apply, though more deadlines are coming to this area of practice. Even so, if your attorney is having trouble getting particular evidence, he or she can ask the ALJ to issue a subpoena for the evidence or ask for additional time to obtain it and submit it after the hearing, if necessary.