What Happens at an SSA Hearing?

The Judge: 
Social Security disability hearings are conducted by US Administrative
Law Judges (known as "ALJs").  These Judges are employees of the Social
Security Administration.  They only handle Social Security cases and
they do hundreds of them every year.  Most judges do 4-8 hearings per
day, several days per week.  If you have a common medical condition,
such as degenerative disk disease or depression, chances are the judge
has done hundreds of cases involving the same medical condition over the
years.  So, you do not have to explain the technical details of your
condition to the ALJ, he or she will already know about it.  

What
you do need to explain are your specific symptoms and limitations.  It
is important to be thorough and to be honest.  The ALJs are usually very experienced
and people often try to exaggerate their symptoms.  You should not
exaggerate because the ALJ will know.  The ALJ will thoroughly review
your medical records and if your reported symptoms do not match what you
tell the ALJ at the hearing, the ALJ will be very skeptical of your
testimony.  You should be respectful and address the ALJ as judge or
your honor.  If the ALJ asks you a specific question, give a specific
answer.  Do not ramble about things you were not asked about.  You will
get an opportunity to say whatever you want.  Providing excessively long
answer to simple questions will only annoy the judge.

Other People at the Hearing: 
There will also be a hearing reporter at the room to make a transcript
of the hearing.  The reporter has promised to keep any information at
the hearing confidential.  Additionally, usually there is a vocational
expert witness paid for by SSA.  The ALJ will usually ask the vocational
expert, also called a "VE," questions about your past work history.  
The
ALJ will probably also ask the vocational expert a series of
hypothetical questions and ask what jobs the hypothetical person could
perform.  You should not read too much into the hypothetical questions
asked by the ALJ.  The ALJ will usually ask three of them, one giving
the limitations previously found by SSA, another with limitations the
ALJ thinks you might have, and a third with the limitations based on
your testimony.  Do not interrupt the ALJ while he is questioning the
VE.  Only say something if you are asked something, otherwise, wait
until the ALJ is done questioning the VE to offer corrections or
observations. 

Sometimes, there will be a medical expert, also
called an ME, at your hearing.  If there is, the ALJ will probably ask
the ME a variety of questions about what your medical problems are and
what limitations you likely have.  It is important to not interrupt
the ALJ or the ME.  You should wait your turn to speak.  You will not
do anything to help your case and will only annoy the person deciding
whether you will get benefits if your continually interrupt.  It is very
valuable to have an attorney representing you to cross-examine the
medical expert.  The ME might misinterpret medical evidence against you
or misapply SSA policy.  Questioning a doctor can be difficult and
intimidating, an experienced attorney can help protect your rights and
prevent the ALJ from relying on erroneous ME testimony.

You are
also allowed to bring witnesses to the hearing.  If the ALJ thinks their
testimony might add material evidence to the case, he will allow them
to testify.  Examples include spouses that have acted as caretakers,
past employers, or medical providers.  The witness will have to be sworn
in and the ALJ and/or your attorney will question them.  

Final Tips: 
Be honest, the ALJ will know if you are exaggerating.  They run
disability hearings all day.  Be thorough, this might be your last
chance to present evidence in the case.  Additionally, this might be
your only chance to be face to face with the person deciding if you
should get benefits.  Make sure you say everything you came to say.  It
might by years before you get another chance if you are denied.  

A Social Security hearing is a very unique proceeding that is presided over by a United States Administrative Law Judge.  This post gives some insight into what to expect at a hearing for someone who has never experienced it before. 

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