As a Louisiana Disability Attorney, I understand that attending and participating in a Social Security disability benefits hearing can be scary for you.
Sometimes the unknown is the scariest part. In fact, most of my clients have never been through anything similar to their disability hearing. It usually calms their fears to know what to expect at an SSDI hearing in front of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).
I like to make sure that my clients understand that the hearing is closed to the public.
This is not like a regular courtroom where anybody can listen in to the proceedings.
The hearing is a private matter and the only people in the hearing room are the participants, and possibly a witness (but the witness may not stay for the entire proceedings).
The one overarching theme that is important to remember is this – ALWAYS TELL THE TRUTH!
Remember, the ALJ likely hears hundreds of cases per year and has seen and heard it all.
They can spot exaggerations and lies very easily. If they catch you doing this, you will lose all credibility and likely lose your chance at disability benefits.
Usually, both the ALJ and your attorney will ask you questions.
Often, the ALJ starts, and then your attorney follows up, but it could work in the opposite direction.
In any case, whether your attorney asks the questions or the judge asks the questions, there is certain information that you should know and be able to discuss clearly and accurately – there is no reason to be surprised by any of this.
Personal Background Questions
- State your full legal name and social security number.
- State your mailing address.
- How tall are you and how much do you weigh?
- How far did you go in school and have you had any education or vocational training beyond high school?
Work Background Questions
- Are you now working?
- Have you tried to work since your onset date?
- Describe your unsuccessful work attempt(s) – who was the employer, what did you try to do, how long were you able to stay and why were you unable to remain on that job
- Identify the last job you worked prior to your onset date – what were your job duties and what were your dates of employment? Why did you leave this job?
- What was the job before that – what were your job duties and dates of employment?
- Why did you leave this job? Going in date order, identify your past work going back for the past 15 years.
Medical Issues Questions
- The medical record suggests that you have been diagnosed with __________ how does this condition/disease affect your capacity to work?
- How long have you had this disease/condition?
- When did it start and how has it progressed?
- If you were going to describe __________ to someone who was not familiar with this disease/condition, how would you explain what it is like to live with it?
Specific Activity Limitation Questions (If Applicable)
- How long can you stand before you have to sit down?
- How long of a break must you take before you can stand/walk again?
- How long or how far can you walk?
- How long can you sit before you have to stand up and move around If you had a job that required standing and walking and you could take a break every ___ minutes, how many minutes or hours total during an 8 hour workday could you stand and/or walk?
- If you had a job that required sitting and you could take a break every___ minutes, how many minutes or hours total during an 8-hour workday could you sit?
- How much can you lift on a frequent basis – frequent meaning at least 2/3 of a workday?
- How much can you lift occasionally – occasionally meaning up to 1/3 of a workday?
- How much can you carry on a frequent basis – frequent meaning at least 2/3 of a workday?
- How much can you carry occasionally – occasionally meaning up to 1/3 of a workday?
- Are you able to bend, crawl or stoop?
- Can you safely climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds?
- Do you have any balance or other issues that would prevent you from working at unprotected heights?
- Do you have any need to take unscheduled bathroom breaks? If so, why and how often?
Questions About Activity Limitations Arising From Non-Physical Problems (Mental Health or Pain)
- Do you have any need to take other unscheduled breaks (i.e. crying spells)? If so, how often?
- Do you have any trouble getting dressed, or dealing with personal hygiene?
- Do you have any issues getting along with family, friends, coworkers, or supervisors? If so, please describe these problems?
- Do you have any memory problems?
- Do you have any problems with concentration?
- Do you experience pain – if so, where in your body? When your pain is at its worst, how bad is it (use scale of 1-10) how often is your pain at that high level? Do you experience pain at a lower level? How often? Does this lower level pain interfere with activities?
- Are there activities/hobbies that you used to enjoy that you can no longer do?
Questions About Specific Activity Limitations (If Applicable)
- The record indicates that you have had some trouble with alcohol use/marijuana use/street drug use. Is that still a problem?
- When was the last time you used?
- What type of program did you attend to address this problem?
This is not intended to serve as a list of every question that you may be asked.
However, at a minimum, you should be able to answer these questions.
There is no excuse, for example, if you are surprised by the question, "How far can you walk?"
The wrong answer is, "I have never really thought about it – I just don't know."
The right type of answer is, "I can walk down my driveway, which is about 20 yards. Because of the pain in my back, I have to stop and lean against my mailbox for about 5 minutes before I can walk back. I always walk with a cane because I am unsteady on my feet."
The "big picture" point here is simple – you have to prepare for your hearing.
Judges are busy and they don't have a lot of time. Preliminary matters like your work background and education should not eat up valuable hearing time.
There are no "trick questions", but you should be prepared on how to answer the questions so you are not tripped up.
Judges understand that your symptoms may not follow a rigid schedule – for example, if you experience seizures, and the question is, "how often do you experience major seizures?" the answer may be "as many as four in a bad month and at least one every month but on average two bad seizures a month."
As a general rule, you should not answer
- I don't really know
- It depends
- Not very much
- Not very far
- Not too long
- It’s hard to say
These responses are not sufficient to give the ALJ an accurate picture of the functional limitations your disability causes you.
Instead, discuss with your lawyer how to offer a truthful answer to an "it depends" situation.
The more specific you can be, the better your results will be.
If you don’t know an answer or didn’t anticipate a question, don’t lie, but do not be afraid the ask the ALJ to give you a minute to think about your answer.
To help ease my clients' nerves, I usually hold a meeting with them in advance of the hearing where we discuss “the lay of the land.” That is, what you will likely see when you walk into the room and what you should expect.
Most hearing accommodations are very similar, although there are some slight variations if you have a live hearing versus a video hearing.
The hearing room is usually just a modified office in an office building or local Social Security Office.
It is generally not a big open courtroom like you see on television.
The typical hearing room will usually include:
- A table with a microphone and computer for you and/or your disability attorney
- Space with a computer and microphone for the vocational expert
- An area for the judge’s aide/hearing reporter, in most instances
- The judge’s bench with a computer, or if a video hearing, a video screen where the ALJ will appear.
Be aware that in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, most hearings have switched from in-person to telephone hearings.
Having handled hearings for many Social Security disability claimants nationwide, I am often asked – "How can I present my case most effectively at my Social Security disability hearing?"
At your hearing, your testimony should focus on the following:
- Your physical symptoms, including your pain, its severity, and the resulting restrictions;
- Your functional capacity: the ability to sit, stand, walk, lift, carry, manipulate, and travel;
- Your current daily activities and any changes to your activities and life due to your disability;
- Maybe the requirements of the jobs you held in the last 15 years – exertional, skill, and stress levels; and
- Your current medical treatment: length, frequency, medication, etc.
Sometimes having friends, family or co-workers testify can help, but usually, the ALJ is more interested in your specific testimony. Plus, new regulations do not require ALJs to even comment on this witness testimony.
While these tips won't guarantee that you win your disability hearing, not following them could ruin your chances.
- You will be sworn in and will declare to tell the truth. You must take your oath seriously.
- You should speak loudly and use clear words to give your testimony. This means no nodding, or shaking your head, no “uh-huhs” or “nh-unhs,” because an audio recording cannot accurately grasp what you are trying to convey.
- If your testimony requires you to point or indicate a portion of your body, you should also verbally state which body part you are discussing. For example, while pointing to your lower back to show the judge where you are in pain, you should also state, “my lower back from behind my stomach down to my tailbone.”
- If a question can be easily answered using “yes” or “no” do that, but if you need to give an additional explanation, make sure to add that in as well.
- Do not talk at the same time as anyone else. So, wait for the question to be completely asked before you start your answer.
- If you do not understand a question, ask that it be repeated.
- If you need to take a break, or stand up/walk around, etc., request permission from the judge.
- Make sure to wear appropriate clothing (no tank tops, shorts, hats, etc.).
- Do not chew gum, tobacco, candy, etc. during the hearing. If you need lozenges due to illness, make sure you alert the judge at the beginning of the proceedings.
- If you are having a telephone hearing, read about our experience with phone hearings during COVID-19.
The biggest tip I could give to you is to be prepared—know what you have to prove and have a plan for doing it.
If you are uncertain about this, an SSDI lawyer can help you. A study by the Government Accounting Office found that adults with representation saw their chances of being awarded benefits increase by 300%.
These are a few basic Social Security disability hearing tips that are generally applicable. In some cases, additional things may be added due to a specific judge’s preferences.
As a Social Security disability lawyer, I have developed and polished many effective techniques for winning benefits.
We have the experience to guide you through this difficult process and present the best possible case for you before the Administrative Law Judge.
If you or someone you love is fighting for Social Security disability benefits, give us a call at 985-240-9773 or fill out our quick disability claim evaluator.