Though an ALJ Disability Hearing typically lasts for less than an hour, they cover a lot of ground. Knowing what to expect going into a disability hearing and preparing appropriately are keys to success. Here is The Law Firm of O’Brien & Feiler’s list of 10 things all Claimants should know before their disability hearing.
- Hearing level odds are better than the preceding levels – During fiscal year 2017, 34% of cases were approved at the initial application level, 13% were approved at reconsideration, and 47% were approved by Administrative Law Judges. Sticking with your treatment plan, adhering to doctor orders, and stepping through the appeals process is often in a Disability Claimant’s best interests.
- Claimants represented by an attorney fare even better – There is a substantial body of research that indicates that being represented by an attorney for your disability hearing substantially increases the odds of being approved. For more information, see Russell Engler, Connecting Self-Representation to Civil Gideon: What Existing Data Reveal About When Counsel is Most Needed, 37 Fordham Urb. L.J. 37 (2010). (at https://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/ulj/vol37/iss1/2)
- Research your ALJ’s approval statistics before the hearing – Though there is very little to be done if one receives an assignment to a judge with an abnormally low favorable decision ratio, it is worth knowing this as early as possible. In many cases, optional testing or case reviews by outside experts may be used to strengthen a case to the greatest degree for review by a challenging judge. For recent ALJ statistics, please click here.
- Disability hearings do not take place in public courtrooms – The ALJ proceedings will not take place in a traditional courtroom. There will not be a gallery of people observing, nor will there be a Plaintiff, Defendant, Prosecutor, or any other courtroom TV drama trappings. Most judges do wear black robes, and they will sit at a bench and swear Claimants, witnesses, and experts in, but courtrooms often look like little more than large offices, and there are typically only a few people involved: The Judge, The Judge’s Assistant, The Claimant, The Claimant’s Attorney, The Vocational Expert, sometimes a Medical Expert, and then any witnesses that are to be called by a Claimant. That’s it.
- Tell the “Warts and All” truth – Sometimes health history is embarrassing or hurts the pride. A disability hearing is no place for being a hero, “sucking it up”, or failing to share because of embarrassment. Outside of the courtroom it is socially acceptable and perfectly understandable to just play the role of the stoic superhero. When testifying about limitations that a health issue causes, sharing truthful insights and examples is the most helpful thing a Claimant can do.
- No “puffery” when discussing your past work – When discussing the work that one used to perform, do not exaggerate responsibilities, or the importance of the role. Though this is frequently done when interviewing for a new job, making oneself look more important in a disability hearing can lead to the assumption of transferable skills, as well as higher SVP work history. Neither of these assumptions is helpful, especially if they are not reflective of the work that was performed by a Claimant.
- Don’t expect a decision on the day of your hearing – While it is not impossible that an ALJ will grant a case at the hearing, do not expect this to happen. Unless there is a clear and bright line that supports an irrefutable favorable ruling, most ALJs will review evidence and testimony prior to issuing a decision. A written decision will be issued about eight to twelve weeks after the hearing.
- Use descriptive words and “yes” or “no” – The only recording made of disability hearings is audio, despite some hearings being conducted using video technology. As such, pointing to painful areas of one’s body without naming them will result in recordings that are not useful should post-hearing review need to occur. Additionally, the difference between “uh-huh” and “unh-uh” are very small when listening to a recording. Clear answers, and positional language (left, right, front, back) will provide the most usable hearing record possible should one need to review a case after the hearing.
- Be a “you” expert not a medical expert – Claimants only need to be able to vocalize how their medical issues limit them. Knowing anatomical terms, pharmacological courses of treatment, and scientific names is of limited value. However, knowing that severe pain limits a Claimant from being able to put shoes on, climb stairs, or hold a dinner plate is insightful. Focus on how one’s conditions affect daily life, from self-care and other activities of daily living, all the way through traveling in a car and interacting with others. By sharing this information, an ALJ can get real insight regarding how a diagnosis affects a Claimant daily.
- The ALJ will often propose “hypothetical claimants” to the Vocational Expert – Understanding the impact of exertional and non-exertional limitations on the ability of a Claimant to work is pivotal to disabilityproceedings. Frequently an ALJ will propose three or four separate hypothetical claimants to the vocational expert with an eye toward those hypothetical claimants returning to the actual Claimant’s past relevant work or performing other work. While this can be a tricky undertaking, it is advisable to ensure that at least one hypothetical includes all documented vocational limitations that a Claimant faces because of their impairments.
There are a lot of moving parts to account for when preparing for an ALJ hearing. For definitions of many of the terms used in this article, please visit our online glossary. If you are disabled and seeking benefits, O’Brien & Feiler would like to help. Call or email us for a free consultation.