What to Expect at a Hearing
Who is In the Room?
Each person in the disability hearing has a specific role. These are some of the people you will see in a hearing:
The hearing monitor is just that—a person who records and monitors the hearing, creating a detailed and exact record of everything that is said during the hearing.
Vocational Expert (VE)
The vocational expert is the “job expert” in the hearing. They review the claimant’s work history and classify the physical exertion level and mental capacity required for the claimant’s previous jobs in terms of the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). They then answer hypothetical questions posed by the judge and attorney about the claimant’s job prospects and provides the judge with examples of jobs within the DOT that the claimant is capable of doing despite the limitations they have because of their disabilities.
Medical Expert (ME)
Not every hearing has a medical expert, and if a judge does not request the presence of a medical expert at a hearing, it is up to the attorney to ask for one to be present if they feel it is necessary. The ME’s role is to
summarize the claimant’s medical records in a way that is easy for everybody to understand. They then offer their expert medical opinion and testify as to whether the claimant is disabled under the social security rules and regulations.
The attorney’s role is to make legal arguments to the judge, elicit testimony from the claimant (you) and the experts, explain to the judge why it is the claimant is disabled and unable to work to the level of SGA, and/or why the claimant meets a listing.
Administrative Law Judge (ALJ)
The judge’s role is to be a neutral fact-finder and apply the social security rules and regulations to the specific case, determining whether the claimant is disabled under social security’s standards. This, however, is not typically the feeling a claimant gets in the hearing. It is commonplace for the ALJ to begin asking the claimant questions and often take on the role of an opposing attorney, arguing and questioning claimants on behalf of the opposing party—the Social Security Administration. A disability attorney can be beneficial in this situation.
Your role in the hearing is the give open and honest testimony about what disabilities you have, what symptoms they cause, and what medical and vocational limitation stem from these illnesses, injuries, and symptoms. This is your time to explain to the judge why you are incapable of working to the level of SGA and why you should be entitled to disability benefits. With prompting by the judge and your attorney, you will provide the judge with information related to all of the above and assist the ALJ in understanding why it is you can’t work.
What is the Hearing Process?
The social security disability hearing can last anywhere from twenty (20) minutes to several hours depending on the complexity of the case, the amount of experts that are present, how much evidence there is to review, what judge is presiding, and the length of testimony that is elicited by the judge and the attorney. Each hearing process is slightly different depending on the judge, and the length of the hearing is also very different depending on which judge will be presiding over the case. With that being said, most hearings follow a similar process.
First, the Administrative Law Judge will discuss the evidence with the attorney and ask whether all relevant evidence has been submitted for review. Next, depending on the ALJ, the attorney will be allowed to make a quick opening statement encompassing their legal argument. The hearing monitor will then swear the claimant in and remind them that the testimony they are giving is being done under the penalty of perjury. Once the claimant is sworn in, the ALJ will begin eliciting testimony from the claimant. This can include any of the following:
Potential Testimony Topics
- Biographic Information (age, date of birth, height, weight, etc.)
- Demographic Information (citizenship status, marital status, sources and amounts of earned and unearned income, where you live, how you support yourself, your cost of living expenses, how many children you have, what your highest level of education is, what your household income is, etc.)
- Abilities (do you drive, what do you do during the day, can you take care of your ADLs, do you care for others, can you cook/clean/etc., do you work or volunteer, can you do your own shopping, etc.)
- Medical Conditions and Limitations Resulting (what are your disabilities, what are the associated symptoms, what are you capable of doing physically, what are you capable of doing mentally, do you have friends or family that support you, why do you believe you are incapable of working, etc.)
Once the ALJ has finished asking you questions, the attorney will have the opportunity to cross-examine you and elicit any additional information that they think is relevant and important but the judge has not covered. It is the attorney’s responsibility to make sure that all of the relevant information about your illnesses and injuries has been explained and testified to.
Once the examination and cross-examination of the claimant are complete, the judge will then elicit testimony from the medical expert if there is one present. The attorney will also have the opportunity to ask the ME questions about the claimant’s conditions and limitations. If the attorney believes that the claimant meets a listing considered in Step 3 of the evaluation, they will ask the ME to give a medical opinion as to that argument.
Next, the ALJ will elicit testimony from the vocational expert, and ask the VE to classify the claimants past relevant work based on the physical and mental requirements of those jobs according to the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). Once the past work has been classified, the judge will ask the expert hypothetical questions regarding what type of work the claimant would be capable of performing based on the limitations the judge believes the claimant has due to his or her disabilities. This process usually gives the attorney some insight into how the judge is thinking of deciding the case. When the ALJ has finished asking hypothetical questions the attorney will have the opportunity to ask the VE their own hypothetical questions, again asserting their legal arguments into the case.
When the hearing is concluded the judge will explain the next steps to the claimant and thank them for their time. Depending on the ALJ, a decision can be expected in the mail anytime from two to ten weeks after the hearing.