What Happens at the Social Security Hearing

It's Really a Meeting

A Social Security Disability hearing is a legal proceeding. This means that the hearing is recorded, and their exhibits admitted. Witnesses are sworn and before testifying. However, when compared with the state or federal court trial, it is generally informal. There is no “other side” at the hearing. Instead, the Administrative Law Judge is gathering evidence so that there is sufficient information upon which to base a decision. We often tell our clients that the hearing is more like a meeting than a formal hearing. Nonetheless, our client is under oath providing sworn testimony.

The Judge Runs The Hearing

In a state or federal court trial, the trial court judge takes more of a passive role in refereeing the trial. The judge will intervene when one of the attorneys raises an objection, or files a motion asking the judge to take a ruling. In a jury trial, the judge will instruct the jury on the law, but at the end of the day, the jury decides the facts of the case.

In a Social Security Disability hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) runs the hearing. This means that the Administrative Law Judge will take an active role gathering evidence and ask the Claimant questions. The ALJ is the judge and the jury.

The ALJ will also decide how to run the hearing. In many of our cases, the ALJ will begin the hearing by questioning our client. The ALJ will then allow us to ask questions of our client. After the client concludes his testimony, the ALJ takes testimony from the vocational expert, and any medical expert that may appear at the hearing.

Each ALJ has their own style of conducting a hearing. Some ALJs will ask lots of questions about the Claimant’s prior work. Some ALJs start out with a list of the same questions in every hearing. We have experience with many of the ALJs and provide our client a preview of what to expect that hearing.

Sometimes, the ALJ will request additional documents, or will have our client attend a consultative examination. Some ALJs will schedule an additional hearing date to have a medical expert available to testify.

The testimony is just one piece of the puzzle.  The ALJ will also look at the exhibits when deciding a case, including medical opinions about your limitations.

Telling Your Story

No matter what your disabling condition is, the questions are generally the same. You will be asked about your past work.  You will be asked about your medical problems.  When we ask our clients questions at a hearing, we start out by asking about symptoms.  Then we get into how those symptoms affect our client with day to day activities.

Judges generally cover the same thing, but sometimes they will flat out ask you why you think you are disabled.

We meet with our clients before the hearing to strategize and plan.  We review the claims file, summarize it and study it.  We then work with our client to develop an outline of questions ready to go.  Even if the Judge goes first, we almost always have more questions for our client.  We want to make sure the Judge knows your story.

Keep in mind that if you are a Claimant testifying about your symptoms and how they affect your ability to get through your day, you are the foremost expert on this issue. Nonetheless, you should be careful to be accurate with your testimony, and not exaggerate limitations or symptoms. If you are not sure about how to answer a question, “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember” are the correct answers if they are honest answers. We instruct our clients to provide estimates where they can.

Other Witnesses

After the Claimant testifies, a witness such as a friend or a family member may testify as well.  Again, this depends on the issues in the case, the Judge hearing the case, and what is in the exhibit file already.  Another option is to have the witness submit a statement.  We often interview witnesses prior to the hearing to determine the best way to present their testimony, if at all.  Some ALJs prefer to have live witnesses, and others prefer to have a written statement.

The Vocational Expert

At almost every hearing, there will be a Vocational Expert.  This is an expert that is not an employee of Social Security but is an independent contractor.  This expert has no interest in the outcome of the case.  This person, who is a vocational counselor by profession, responds to hypothetical questions about whether a person with your same work experience and education can do certain kinds of work.  The Judge is creating these hypothetical questions based upon information in the claims file. 

The Judge should present several hypothetical questions, and then determine which hypothetical scenario best represents your physical and mental abilities or limitations in the work place.  We are also able to pose our own hypothetical questions, depending on the evidence in your claims file.

The Medical Expert

In some cases, the Judge will have a medical expert present at the hearing.  This person, usually a medical doctor, or a psychologist, reviews the medical records in the file, and forms an opinion about whether our client "meets a listing."  These doctors will sometimes ask our client some questions to get more information about your condition.  We are also able ask the doctor questions.

How Long Does a Hearing Last?

Hearings usually last about an hour, but again, every case is different.

After The Hearing

Sometimes, based on how the hearing went, we can tell whether the Judge will grant benefits are not. The hearing may also be "continued." This just means that the Judge decided that more information is necessary to make a decision. This could mean anything from asking us to get updated medical records to scheduling an appointment for you to see another doctor for an evaluation.

If the Judge has all the evidence needed to make a decision, then the record is "closed." This means that no more information is submitted to the Judge, and he or she will put together a Decision. We always advise our clients that it could take at least two months for the Judge to issue a Decision. Again, this depends on the Judge's work load.


If you have questions about a Social Security Disability claim, contact us or check out our free downloadable book.

Joe Di Bartolomeo
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Top-rated Personal Injury Lawyer Helping Oregon and Washington Families