If the Social Security Administration (SSA) denies your application for Social Security disability benefits, you have the right to appeal this decision. There are several levels of appeal, starting with a reconsideration determination. If the SSA denies your request for reconsideration, the next step is to request a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).
The ALJ hearing process is the first chance you have to sit down in front of the decision-maker on your case and offer testimony about why you can’t work. This is important because, until now, the process has been impersonal and largely based on doctors (who have never met or spoken to you) reviewing your records.
The hearing is a chance to explain to a judge how your impairments actually impact you on a daily basis, and why those medical diagnoses keep you from being able to get through a full day’s work. The hearing process also involves an examination of any existing evidence in the case.
You will also have the opportunity to submit new evidence prior to the hearing; the ALJ may also ask other witnesses to attend. After the hearing, the ALJ will issue a decision.
There are several ways to increase the likelihood of prevailing at an ALJ hearing. As a Philadelphia disability attorney can explain, following the below strategies can help you be better prepared for your hearing — and maximize your chances of a favorable result.
Hire a Qualified Disability Benefits Attorney
When you file an application for SSA benefits and when you appeal a denial of benefits, you are able to represent yourself. However, for most people, working with a skilled lawyer will lead to a better outcome.
Going to a hearing before an ALJ can be intimidating. A Philadelphia disability benefits attorney can help you prepare for the hearing. He or she can also ensure that your case is properly presented to the ALJ.
This includes gathering evidence, drafting a brief, and preparing you and guiding you through your testimony. This might also mean addressing areas the judge missed, or questions you didn’t have the chance to fully answer or to qualify when the judge was going through her questioning.
For example, if you are asked whether you can walk, you might say “yes,” and then the judge will move on to the next question. But your answer may actually be something like: “yes, but only for about 10 minutes and then I have to sit down.” An experienced Social Security lawyer will catch these potential areas of confusion and double back to clarify your testimony.
Once you have chosen an attorney, be sure to keep in touch with him or her throughout the process. Your lawyer cannot know if something has changed with your condition unless you inform them, so it is up to you to make sure that you update him or her regularly. Doing so will ensure that your attorney has what he or she needs to represent you properly at your hearing.
In any disability case, the ultimate decision will come down to a question of whether the applicant not only has a disability (as defined by the SSA), but if that disability prevents them from working. To demonstrate that you meet these qualifications, you must provide evidence.
One form of evidence that is commonly submitted at ALJ hearings is medical records. Generally, the ALJ will want to see that you are undergoing regular treatment for your condition, so you should make an appointment in advance of your hearing if you have not seen your doctor. Under SSA rules, all evidence must be submitted 5 days in advance of the hearing (with some exceptions).
You should also consider asking friends, colleagues or family members to testify on your behalf at the hearing. These witnesses should be able to testify about your abilities and limitations, including the things that you have struggled with, such as standing or sitting for long periods of time.
Your witnesses should not duplicate their testimony; one or two witnesses is usually sufficient for ALJ hearings. Sworn statements from witnesses are often appropriate, and may be preferable to having witnesses testify in-person at the hearing.
Study Your Case
Even if you are working with a lawyer, your disability benefits case will rest on you. While your attorney will be responsible for the legal aspects of your claim, you will be testifying about your condition and how it affects your ability to work. That is why it is important for you to be familiar with your case, including your medical records.
If you are not represented by a Social Security lawyer, you should make sure you obtain a copy of your electronic file from the Social Security Administration before your hearing. If you are represented, your attorney will do this, and will review the file to make sure there isn’t any evidence missing.
When you speak with your lawyer, she will also go over the exhibits with you and get your input on anything that might be missing. Oftentimes, because it can take so long to get to a hearing, you may have already provided updates, and need only get the last few months of records, but making sure the judge has everything that supports your claim is critical.
This doesn’t mean that you need to memorize the entire case file. Instead, you should know what medical evidence is being presented to the ALJ.
This may be counterintuitive, but once you’re comfortable with the medical evidence in your file, and know that there’s nothing important missing – forget about it. Your testimony should focus on your experience; the doctors can speak for themselves. Instead, when you testify you should focus on the things for which you are an expert, which is how these impairments limit you in your daily life.
Don’t Downplay the Impact of Your Disability on Your Life
In our culture, there is a tendency to be stoic. Many of us don’t want to show weakness, and so we put a happy face on while minimizing our pain and discomfort. A disability benefits hearing is the last place that you want to do this.
While you don’t want to exaggerate your condition, you should not downplay it. Be truthful and specific about how your disability prevents you from working. If you attempt to minimize your condition, it may result in losing the hearing.
Remember that the judge is a lawyer who was hired to do this for a living. She will not think that you are weak if you talk about what you can’t do because of your impairment, or even if you break down in tears.
You will stand a better chance of winning at the hearing if you are honest and do not attempt to downplay your disability and how it affects you. But you also don’t want to put on a performance. Be yourself, be open, and be heard.
When it comes to a disability benefits hearing, you want to show that this is important to you. One way to do so is by showing the ALJ that you respect him or her and the process.
Respect can take a number of forms. First and foremost, you should do what it takes to be at the hearing, and arrive on time (better yet: be there early).
If you cannot make it to the hearing, talk to your lawyer well in advance to try to have it rescheduled (A note of caution: Because Social Security has such a large number of pending hearings, judges will often deny a request to reschedule in all but the most dire of circumstances). Failing to appear entirely can hurt your case — and may prevent you from arguing that the SSA’s denial of benefits should be overturned or result in the case simply being dismissed without you ever having your “day in court.”
Next, be sure to be clean and well-groomed. You may dress casually if doing so is important to your comfort. However, you want your clothing to be free of political logos or trademarks, and generally not draw attention away from the story you have to tell.
Finally, speak civilly to the ALJ during the hearing. There may be times that you are frustrated about the questions being asked or angry about the process.
Don’t take it out on the ALJ; be calm, polite and respectful, remembering that the ALJ is the person who will make a decision about your case. This can be exceptionally hard if you have a judge who is asking you tough questions or who appears disinterested in your case.
If you have hired an experienced disability attorney, they should know the judge, and will be able to guide the hearing to keep things on track. Sometimes, judges purposefully try to “rattle” claimants, even when they may ultimately award the claim.
Pushing a bit, or asking tough questions can help them feel comfortable that you are not overstating your problems. Of course sometimes, you may have a judge who is hostile, or disinterested in your claim. That doesn’t mean your hearing is the end of the road, but it makes your choice of lawyer even more important.
How a Philadelphia Disability Benefits Attorney Can Help You with a Hearing
If you have reached the stage of an ALJ hearing, you have already received at least one denial from SSA. This can be frustrating, particularly as you are already dealing with the limitations imposed by your condition. Bross & Frankel can help.
Our firm is devoted to advocating for people just like you, who are unable to work due to an impairment. We work collaboratively with our clients, using our knowledge of the law and experience with the process to help them achieve their goals. To learn more about how we can help you or to schedule a no-cost, no-obligation consultation with a Philadelphia disability attorney, call our office today at (856) 795-8880, or contact us online.
Rich Frankel is the managing partner of Bross & Frankel. He is a member of the New Jersey and Pennsylvania bars. He has focused exclusively on disability and social security benefits since 2005.
Mr. Frankel joined what is now Bross & Frankel after having watched his father struggle with disability, fighting a lengthy illness. Mr. Frankel founded the firm’s veteran’s law practice and substantially grew the social security disability practice, focusing Bross & Frankel’s ability to fight for all of the disability benefits available to his clients.
Mr. Frankel additionally fights for clients in court, obtaining frequent victories in Social Security appeals and against insurance companies in Federal court.