Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) Hearings and What to Expect

//Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) Hearings and What to Expect

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) Hearings and What to Expect

If your claim for Social Security disability insurance is denied, it may be tempting to lose hope.  Don’t give up!  It’s easy to appeal the denial. Just file an appeal form: Request for Hearing before an administrative law judge. Here are some important steps you can take to prepare for the hearing.

  1. Hire a professional representative—an attorney who specializes in Social Security disability insurance.
  2. Review and update your medical history.
  3. Update your work history.
  4. Make sure your employment history and details of your work duties are correct.
  5. Make notes of how your day-to-day activities are limited by your disability.
  6. Keep your medical appointments, including doctors, physical therapy, and counseling sessions.
  7. Receiving the Notice of Hearing.
  8. Meeting with your representative prior to the hearing.
  9. Dress appropriately for the SSDI hearing.

1. Hire an Attorney Specializing in Social Security Disability Insurance

This is a step that seems hard, but is actually easy and can make your life easier!  Give Acadia Disability a call—our experienced Social Security representatives know how to navigate the complex rules, regulations, and policies that make up the Social Security disability process.  We’ll be able to review your claim folder, update your records, and show the judge how your impairments are disabling.  The hearing office will coordinate a hearing date with our office, and we’ll make sure you don’t have a conflict when your hearing is scheduled.  Your disability attorney will also attend the hearing with you and is prepared to ask questions of you and any expert witnesses called by the judge.

2. Update Your Medical Records

It’s vital that all of your medical records are considered by the Social Security Administration when they decide on your disability claim. Be sure your doctors have submitted records of the year before the date you stopped working. If you’ve had doctor appointments after your claim was denied, send in those records as well.  If your primary care doctor referred you to specialists, make sure those records are included.  Our professional staff at Acadia Disability will meet with you, review your file, and request updated records from all your treating sources.

3. Update Your Medical Records and Employment History

In addition to your medical condition, the Social Security judge considers your “past relevant work” when making a disability decision. “Past relevant work” is the work you’ve performed for the 15 years prior to the date you stopped working. The judge will look at the work you’ve done, not just how work is usually performed, but the job duties you actually did while you worked.  For example, if you worked for your brother, who cut you some slack and let you rest more than other employees—or if you worked for your brother-in-law, who expected more from you than other employees—then you need to explain those situations on your Work History forms.

4. Keep a Daily Log

Keeping a daily journal of how your daily activities are limited by your medical impairments will help you during your hearing.  The judge will want to understand your disability and why you can’t return to work. For example, if you can provide a reference showing how you tried to go shopping for groceries, but had to sit in the store to rest when you were only halfway done, this will help you respond to his or her questioning.  This daily log will also help you keep track of what happened when you went to the doctor and any side effects from medications. All of this information that will be valuable in establishing your disability.

5. Keep Your Medical Appointments

Whether your appointments are for medical doctors, physical therapy, counseling, or something else, it’s important to your SSDI claim that you keep all of your appointments.  The ALJ will check your medical records to see if you’re compliant with your doctors’ orders and following instructions.  Social Security regulations state you have to follow medical recommendations, including taking your medications as prescribed.  If you don’t, the judge can use this information to deny your claim.

6. Receiving the Notice of Hearing

The hearing office will send you a Notice of Hearing once the date for your SSDI hearing is arranged.  The Notice of Hearing is mailed at least 20 days prior to the hearing, unless you’ve waived the 20-day notice.  Check the date carefully, as well as the location.  If there is a problem, such as the hearing site is too far from your home, then contact the hearing office or your representative to straighten out any mistakes.

Call your attorney to make sure they’ve received the Notice of Hearing as well.  The Notice of Hearing will also contain information about any expert witnesses requested by the judge.  Your representative will be prepared to question the expert witness as well. The notice will also contain an Acknowledgment of Receipt of Notice of Hearing, which you should sign and send back to the hearing office, stating that you’ll attend the scheduled hearing.  You may want to make a practice run to the hearing site so you won’t get lost the day of the hearing.

If you’re considering obtaining a representative and have already received a Notice of Hearing, do not delay!

7. Meet with Your Representative Prior to the Hearing

Prior to the scheduled hearing date, you’ll meet with your representative, who will double check your claim folder and make sure all records are updated. Your representative will talk about the hearing and arrange a time and place to meet on the day of the hearing. Your attorney will want to ask you questions to get any last-minute details, and they will answer any of your questions.

The Notice of Hearing will also inform you whether the ALJ has requested the presence of a vocational expert (VE).   Your representative will look over the vocational expert’s resume, which will be one of the exhibits in your claim file.  Most vocational experts work with employers and employees who have filed a workers’ compensation claim to help injured workers find other jobs.  A vocational expert is called on to be an impartial witness at the SSDI Hearing, and the testimony will be about your past work and jobs that workers with vocational limitations can do.  If you have had contact with the same vocational expert in a previous situation, let your attorney know right away so a different expert can be arranged.

8. Dressing for the Hearing

While a Disability Hearing may not be held in a courtroom, it’s still important to make a good impression.  You don’t have to wear a suit, but you’ll want to dress up a little.  Your clothes and shoes should be clean.  Wearing nice clothing will help the judge see that you’re serious about your disability claim and care enough to dress appropriately in business casual attire.


What to expect during the SSDI hearing

After all the waiting and paperwork, the day of your hearing will arrive.  You may be a little nervous, but your attorney will help you there, too.

  • Who will attend the disability hearing?
  • What kinds of questions will the judge ask?
  • What is the vocational expert testimony?
  • Can I bring a witness?
  • How long will I have to wait for a decision after the hearing?
  • What if I receive an unfavorable decision?
  • What happens when there is a favorable decision?
  • How long before disability payments begin?


Who Attends the Disability Hearing?

After you check in with the receptionist, your representative will have an opportunity to speak with you privately in a small conference room.  Soon, you’ll be called into the hearing room, where you’ll see a contract hearing reporter and the vocational expert witness.  The administrative law judge (ALJ) may be in the hearing room when you enter, or may enter after everyone is in the hearing room. The ALJ will administer the oath, where you swear or affirm that you will tell the truth.

The contract hearing reporter and vocational expert are not Social Security employees and they cannot help you with your questions.  If you have a question that cannot be answered by your representative, the receptionist may direct you to the ALJ’s legal assistant.

What Types of Questions Will be Asked at the SSDI Hearing?

Here’s where the daily log you’ve been keeping will come in handy! Some judges allow representatives to go first with the questioning, and your preparation will help you here as well.  If the ALJ decides to question you first, the judge will ask you about your medical problems and how they limit your ability to perform everyday tasks, such as driving, shopping for groceries, making the bed, performing household chores, and paying your bills on time. Let the judge know if you need help doing things you used to do by yourself. The judge will also want to know when you stopped working and why you can’t return to your old job, how you got along with coworkers and supervisors, and if you were able to go to work every day.  When you think about it, this is your first opportunity to meet face-to-face with an actual Social Security staff member, so tell your story as completely as you can.

What is the Vocational Expert Testimony?

The vocational expert (VE) will receive the work history reports you completed earlier, and he or she will be asked to testify about the physical and mental requirements of your past work.  If you had a special accommodation so you could perform any of your past jobs, the VE will testify about how this changes the skill levels of those jobs.

Next, the ALJ will ask questions of the vocational expert, who is an “impartial witness,” meaning he or she doesn’t know about your entire case.  The VE is only provided with information about your age, education, past jobs, and your job duties.  The ALJ will ask the vocational expert to describe your past work in terms of skills and physical and mental requirements.  After those answers, the ALJ will describe a typical worker with your education, age, and past relevant work experience, with work-related limitations contained in your medical records and your testimony at the hearing.  This is called “Residual Functional Capacity” (RFC)—which describes what you can still do even with the limitations caused by your medical conditions.

The ALJ will want to know if that worker could perform any of your past jobs.  Then, the vocational expert will answer questions about whether there are any jobs available that the worker could perform, even when considering the limitations caused by medical impairments.  Your representative may add limitations that are contained in the medical evidence or in your testimony that were not included in the initial RFC, and the VE may amend his or her opinion.

Your representative will make a closing statement and may ask for additional time to submit any new medical evidence. After hearing your testimony and the arguments from your representative, the judge may want to have you attend a medical examination.  If this is the case, the hearing office staff will arrange a medical appointment for the examination.  Let your representative know when you get the appointment form so he or she can expect the doctor’s report.  If there’s a problem with the appointment date, let the hearing office know immediately so another appointment time can be scheduled.  The judge needs the information the doctor will provide, so it’s important that you attend the examination.

Can I Bring a Witness?

You may bring a witness to the hearing.  Limit yourself to someone who knows you and your situation. You’ll want someone who has come over to help you with daily activities, or who has seen you struggle with regular, simple chores. Another good witness would be a former co-worker who was very familiar with your problems and limitations at work. Don’t just bring a friend, or your pastor, or a neighbor who simply knows you’re a good person. Your witness needs to have regularly observed the great effort it takes for you to complete normal tasks. Be prepared that the judge may ask you to leave the courtroom while your witness is questioned.

How long will I have to wait for a decision after the hearing?

After the hearing is completed, the ALJ will review your folder, your testimony at the hearing, and the expert witness’s testimony. The judge will consider the arguments made by your representative and then make a decision on your claim.  There’s no “average wait time” for SSDI hearing decisions.  Depending on the workload of the hearing office, it could take between four and eight months to receive a decision—sometimes even longer.  Your representative can find out the status of your disability claim. Be sure to maintain your daily log and attend all medical appointments while you’re waiting on the SSDI hearing decision.


SSDI Hearing Decision

Finally, your Notice of Decision has arrived.  There will be a thick envelope with several documents in it, including the ALJ decision.  The first page will tell you the judge’s decision as to whether your medical impairments and vocational factors meet the Social Security administration’s definition of disability.

What Happens If I Receive an Unfavorable Decision?

If you receive an unfavorable decision regarding your social security disability benefits, read the decision carefully.  The judge will explain why the evidence did not support a favorable decision.  Contact your representative to discuss your next steps.  You can file a “Request for Appeals Council Review of ALJ Decision” to appeal the judge’s ruling.  Acadia Disability representatives can prepare a memorandum pointing out the errors in the decision and why you should have been found disabled.

The Appeals Council can take one of three avenues: First, they can refuse to review the case.  This is why it’s vital to have a memorandum that thoroughly reviews the disability decision and points out specific reasons why the decision was wrong. Second, the Appeals Council can overrule the judge and find you are disabled. Third, the Appeals Council can agree that there was an error in the decision and send the case back to the ALJ for another decision. In this case, the judge may schedule another hearing and you’ll receive another decision.  If that decision is unfavorable, you can file a lawsuit in Federal Court appealing the decision.  Again, our expert attorneys at Acadia Disability can help you file this appeal.

What Happens When There is a Favorable Decision?

If you receive a favorable decision in the mail, you will also receive a thick envelope with several documents in it.  There will be the Notice of Decision, the Approval of Fee Agreement authorizing payment to your representative, the Favorable Decision, and the Exhibit List. The decision will explain why the judge believed the evidence supported your disability claim.

How Long Before Disability Payments Begin?

You’ll receive a Social Security notice four to six weeks after the ALJ decision.  This notice will explain when your past due SSD benefits check will arrive and the amount, as well as what day of the month you can expect your regular payments.  The notice will also show the amount of attorney fees authorized based on the fee agreement signed by the judge.

While all this might seem confusing, here at Acadia Disability, our expert staff members can help you every step of the way. We’ll answer your questions, write pre-hearing briefs to the ALJ, accompany you to the hearing, ask questions of expert witnesses, order updated medical evidence, and file appropriate paperwork for future appeals.

If you’ve already filed a Request for Hearing or if you’re deciding whether to appeal your unfavorable decision, please contact us right away.  Our attorneys can start work on your claim right away to get you the disability benefits you deserve.