February 22, 2020

What Happens at a Social Security Disability Hearing?

As you learn more about the Social Security disability process, you are no doubt reading a lot or watching videos about disability hearings.  Since Social Security hearings are closed to the public, so you most likely have never seen one or know what to expect.  While individual judges conduct hearings slightly differently, there are some common features.  Here is what you need to know:

Social Security Disability Hearings are Not Like State Court Trials

If you have ever been to a state or superior court, or even traffic court, you know that courtrooms can be very active places.  Attorneys may be milling around, witnesses and spectators are seated in pews, armed bailiffs are there to keep order, there may be a jury box, and these courts are open to the public – except in very limited circumstances, anyone can come to court and watch a trial.

You will not see any of these things in a Social Security disability hearing.  Firstly, Social Security hearings are not open to the public.  Only the claimant, his attorney and possibly one or two witnesses will be allowed in.  Social Security hearings are administrative in nature rather than judicial.  As such, the rules that apply in state court do not apply to the Social Security Administration.

The Rules of Evidence are Relaxed at Social Security Disability Hearings

In a state court, judges spend a lot of their time making decisions about the admissability of evidence.  For example, you may have seen criminal trials where certain physical evidence was not admitted because there was some question about the chain of possession or possible tainting of the evidence.

These evidentiary issues usually do not apply in Social Security cases.  Administrative Law Judges typically allow in any evidence that you or your attorney may wish to submit.  This includes photocopies, letters from witnesses, and hearsay – none of which would be allowed in state court.

There is no Opposing Counsel

There will be no opposing counsel representing Social Security at your hearing.  Instead the administrative law judge serves as both the finder of fact and Social Security’s representative.  Most judges see their role as a neutral finder of fact who is trying to determine whether you meet SSA’s definition of disability.  Some judges will take a more aggressive approach and challenge you when you testify, but solid preparation and practice with your lawyer will help you prepare for the specific judge assigned to your case.

Hearings are Short and Relatively Informal

Most disability hearings last about 45 minutes to an hour.  You don’t have to wear a suit or formal clothes, although you should show respect to the judge and avoid wearing a t-shirt or shorts.  Many times your lawyer will ask most of the questions and the time allotted for your testimony is about 30 minutes.  Generally the last 10 to 15 minutes of your hearing will involve testimony of a vocational expert who will help the judge understand what type of work you have done in the past, and how your medical problems would impact your capacity to return to past work or any other job.

Preparation is Key

Because Social Security disability hearings are short, and because you will have waited 1 to 2 years for your 45 minute hearing, you must not appear at your hearing without preparation.  An experienced lawyer will help you practice by asking you the questions you are likely to get from the judge, and fine tuning your answers.

A good lawyer will also identify potential problem areas and help you craft truthful testimony that helps your cause.

If you have requested a hearing and are not currently represented, we would love to speak with you. Please use the form on this page to tell us more about your case.