What to Expect at a Social Security Hearing

A hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (Social Security Judge) is often the most important stage of an application for Social Security Disability. Hearings generally last from 20 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the judge, the attorney, the witnesses and the issues.

The procedure is generally informal. The rules of evidence do not apply. In most cases, the judge will perform the direct examination of the claimant. The Judge usually questions expert witnesses, such as Medical Examiners or Vocational experts. The attorney representing the claimant is left to perform cross-examination. Video Teleconferencing is becoming more common in workers' compensation hearings, although if a claimant objects, the hearing will be held live.

All hearings are tape recorded, to preserve the record for appeal. The Judge begins the hearing with an introduction about the legal process and sometimes allows the claimant's attorney an opportunity to make an opening statement. Next the exhibits of record are identified, with opportunities for objections or submissions of additional evidence.

The next stage is presentation of live testimony. Generally, the claimant is sworn and will be the first witness. Sometimes the Judge will conduct the initial examination of the claimant. Because Social Security hearings are not adversarial (there is no attorney representing the Social Security Administration), roles are often reversed or confused. The Judge initiates examination of the claimant, but sometimes may do so in a "prosecutorial fashion" as if on cross-examination. This kind of questioning often impairs a claimant's ability to make a complete record because the claimant is prevented from describing, explaining or offering examples. The claimant attorney's job is to help the claimant tell his or her story fully, by asking open-ended questions, which encourage the claimant to give important details.

After the Claimant has testified, typically will follow any lay testimony in support of the claimant, such as a spouse, sibling or friend. These types of witnesses generally corroborate the testimony of the claimant and will add additional information about activities of daily living.

Generally, medical or vocational experts are asked to appear at the request of the Administrative Law Judge. They are compensated by the Social Security Administration. These expert witnesses are supposed to be neutral witnesses, who assist the Administrative Law Judge in understanding certain issues. The Judge must weigh the testimony of the medical and vocational experts, along with other evidence in the file and then must decide the case. The attorney representing the Claimant will have an opportunity to cross-examine an expert medical or vocational witness. A good Social Security attorney will make a medical expert aware of the claimant's symptomology and impairments and that these are fully considered in any expert opinion.

Administrative Law Judges usually do not indicate how they will decide at the end of the hearing and it may take weeks to months to receive a written decision. If anything changes significantly for the claimant after the hearing, but before the decision issued, additional evidence can be submitted for consideration by the court.

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