Approaching the hearing date can cause anxiety among claimants who may have waited up to two years for their case to reach this stage. Unfortunately, there are far too many claimants who have never met their attorney, have never even spoken at length with their attorney about their claim, who will not meet their attorney until just a few minutes prior to the hearing, and who do not know if all their evidence has been obtained and produced. This type of shoddy representation is, and should be, cause for concern and is far too common. I usually hear these and many other complaints after the claimant has lost the hearing, and by then, it is too late to influence what happened.
However, in my practice, we are completely dedicated to thorough hearing preparation and do everything we possibly can to obtain the best evidence to support the case and produce the evidence to the hearing office in a timely manner prior to the hearing. We also prepare a detailed hearing brief for the judge well in advance, so that the judge can see our “roadmap for approval” including all relevant facts, the theory of approval for the case and specific citations to all relevant evidence. Most importantly, we spend the time needed in person with the client to answer questions, review the hearing procedures and prepare the client for the kinds of questions that will likely be asked at the hearing. The key to a successful hearing is in this kind of thorough preparation.
On the day of the hearing, I usually meet my client an hour in advance of the time set for the hearing. We again review the chronology of events, important evidence and answer any lingering questions. The hearing monitor assigned to our judge will let us know if the judge is ready. We will walk into a secured area and go into the judge’s chambers, which is a private room about the size of a conference room. The judge will be seated on an elevated bench and he or she will wear a black robe. There are no spectators in the judge’s hearing room. The judge will swear in the claimant as well as experts who may be appearing over the phone or in person. These experts retained by Social Security are supposed to be impartial and are present to assist the judge in making a fair determination. Almost always, there is a vocational expert who will discuss the claimant’s past work and who will testify as to what jobs a hypothetical claimant your same age, education, and work experience might be able to perform with certain limitations. There also might be a medical expert to assist the judge in reviewing medical evidence and in giving opinions as to what the claimant’s limitations and functional capacity for work might be given the medical evidence.
Your job the day of the hearing is to answer questions about when you stopped working, why you stopped working and why you cannot work now. The focus is on your medical impairments and physical/mental limitations, not on the economy or whether there are jobs available for you or whether employers are hiring in your immediate area. In addition, you are also expected to testify regarding your day-to-day activities and limitations since you stopped working. The hearing should last between 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the judge.
Here are some important things to remember:
- In advance of the hearing, think about your average day, from when you get up in the morning until you go to bed. What can you still do? What can you no longer do that you used to be able to do? Do you need to take frequent breaks? Do you need help to do certain things, like cleaning or laundry? If so, who helps you? When and how often?
- The claimant must wait for the judge or the attorney to ask a complete question before responding, speak so that the judge can hear you, and answer the question posed as completely as possible.
- It is always good to be able to give an estimate or a percentage of the time. For example, if you need to lie down throughout the day, how many hours in an 8-hour day when you would otherwise be working, do you find that you need to lie down? Give estimates for time and distance, such as how far you can walk at one time, say from your front door to the mailbox, or across the hearing office parking lot. Concrete examples are always helpful to the judge.
- Do not be concerned if the vocational expert identifies several jobs that a hypothetical claimant like you would be able to perform with some limitations. As your attorney, it is my job to incorporate significant limitations supported by the medical evidence in the hypothetical questions if the judge has not already done so. If the vocational expert testifies that with certain limitations that there are “no jobs” then the hearing likely will conclude on a positive note for the claimant.
- Do not expect a decision that very same day. It may take from two to six months for a hearing decision. If you are homeless or have a terminal illness, the decision can be expedited.
- Even after a favorable decision is issued, it may take another two to four months for payment. If you have a Worker’s Compensation case or if you drew on State Disability, your award may be subject to offsets because you may be paid from other public programs, so payment can be delayed. Please obtain copies of your Workers’ Compensation settlement agreement and/or your State Disability payment history and give them to your attorney to help in avoiding any further delays.
The best preparation for your hearing occurs during the many months prior to the hearing. Make sure that you are consistently seeking and following medical treatment and informing your attorney of relevant new evidence. I am always available to answer questions or report on the status of your case. Our personal attention to each client enhances your chances of prevailing and winning your benefits at your hearing.