Arrive for your hearing about a half an hour early. Any earlier is not necessary.
Disability hearings usually start on time, so whatever you do, don't be late.
Don't Talk About Your Case
When you come for your hearing, remember, social security hearings are serious business.
Don't make jokes. Indeed, don't even talk about your case before or after your hearing in
the waiting room, in the hallway, in the elevator or anywhere else where a stranger
can overhear. A social security employee may misinterpret what you say and get the
wrong impression about you.
The Hearing Room
A social security hearing room is held in a small conference room. It may have a few
official trappings such as the seal of the Social Security Administration or an American
flag. Hearing rooms are always equipped with a conference table. Hearing rooms often have
a desk for the judge that sits on a small riser so it's slightly above the level of
the conference table where you will sit.
The Tape Recorder
The most important equipment in a hearing room is the tape recorder. It's used to record
your hearing. Because your hearing will be recorded, it is important for you to speak
clearly when you answer questions. When answering questions refrain from shaking your
head, pointing to a part of your body, or saying "uh huh" or "huh uh".
Try to respond by saying "yes" and "no" if you can.
People In The Hearing Room
You will be seated at the conference table along with your attorney. Also seated at the
conference table will be the judge's assistant who operates the tape recorder. Under some
circumstances the judge may call a vocational witness or a doctor to testify. If so, they
will be seated at the conference table, too. You are allowed to bring witnesses and, if
you wish, observers into the hearing room. But the hearing is private. Anyone present
other than the judge, the judge's staff and witnesses called by the judge must have your
Social security hearings are much less formal than court hearings. Although this is an
informal hearing, there are a couple of procedures that are necessary to follow. First,
you and all witnesses will testify under oath. Second, it's important that you not ask for
help from anyone in the room when you are testifying. Only one person is allowed to
testify at a time. It's important that your witnesses or friends do not chime in to help
The Administrative Law Judge
The person who presides in a social security hearing is an administrative law judge.
Although many judges do not wear judicial robes and you will not be expected to stand up
when the judge comes into the room, the social security judge is entitled to the same sort
of respect that you would pay to a court judge.
The judge's job is to issue an independent decision, which is not influenced by the fact
that your case was denied at the time of your initial application and on reconsideration.
In fact, judges do issue independent decisions, with more than half of their
decisions nationwide being in favor of the claimant. These are the best odds of winning at
any step in the entire social security appeals system.
There is no lawyer on the other side who is going to cross-examine you. Judges usually do
not "cross-examine" a claimant. The judge is not your adversary. The judge is not
your opponent. The judge's job is to find out the facts.
Don't ask the judge any questions about your case. For example, don't ask, "Why have I
been denied?" "Why is it taking me so long to have a hearing?" and so forth. It is best to
focus on the facts of your case, to give the judge the best possible reasons to find you
disabled. The only time you should ask the judge a question is when you do not understand
what is being asked of you. Judges and lawyers sometimes ask simple questions in
complicated ways. This is a shortcoming of the legal profession. Don't be intimidated by
it. If you're not sure you understand a question, don't be embarrassed to ask politely for
The most important thing about a social security hearing is telling the truth. When the
judge asks a question, don't try to figure out why the judge is asking that particular
question or whether your answer will help or hurt your case. Be candid about your
strengths as well as about your limitations. The best way to lose a good case is for the
judge to think that you're not telling the truth. So, testify truthfully.
Don't pretend to cry or be in more pain than you are. On the other hand, you need not
suffer silently or minimize your problems when you tell the judge how you feel. If you
need to take a break from the hearing, ask the judge for permission. If you are
uncomfortable sitting and it would help to stand up for a while, you may do so and you
should not be embarrassed about it.
Tell Your Story
This will be your chance to tell the judge everything you want the judge to know about why
your condition prevents you from holding a job. You need to provide enough facts, details,
and explanation in your testimony to make it obvious to the judge that you are disabled.
Work and Educational History
For work history, you will be asked to describe job duties on your last job and on all
significant jobs you've had during the past fifteen years. The judge will want to know how
much weight you had to lift on each job and about how much time during the workday that
you spent sitting, standing and walking on each job. The judge will be interested in
difficulties you had performing past jobs because of your health and why you left each
former job, especially your last job.
The judge will also ask about job skills. If you have had semi-skilled or skilled work, it
is important that you describe your skills accurately. Remember, though, this hearing is
not like a job interview in which people often have a tendency to try to puff up their job
skills. Guard against any such tendency.
For education, you'll be asked the highest grade you completed in school, whether you had
any training in the military, whether you have had any formal vocational training
or on-the-job training. If you have difficulty explaining why you can't now perform one
of the jobs that you have done in the past 15 years, you'll want to go over this with
your lawyer before your hearing. If you have recently completed some schooling that
might qualify you for a skilled job, be sure your lawyer knows all about this schooling.
Sometimes there are no questions whatsoever about your medical history. The judge will
have your medical records from doctors, hospitals and others who have treated you and may
let the medical records speak for themselves. It is your lawyer's job to see to it that
all of the medical records the judge needs to see are in the hearing exhibit file and,
when necessary, that there are letters from your doctors explaining your medical condition
and their opinions about your limitations.
The judge may ask a few general questions about your medical history. The judge may want
to know how often you see your doctor, what sort of treatment your doctor provides, what
medications you are taking, how often you take them and whether there are any side effects. You may be asked to describe the symptoms and treatment of your medical condition since it
began, what doctors you have seen, where and when you were hospitalized, and so forth.
Symptoms are how you feel. No one knows how you feel better than you. You know where you
hurt, and when you hurt. You know when you get short of breath or dizzy or fatigued. So
it's up to you to describe those symptoms to the judge in as much detail and as vividly as
possible. After all, it's these symptoms that keep you from working. It's not because you
have some particular label of disease like arthritis or a heart condition or a lung
condition that you are unable to work. You cannot work because of how you feel.
So if the judge says to you, "Why can't you work?" Don't say, "It's because I
have fibromyalgia" etc. Lots of people who can and do work have the same impairment.
So telling the judge the name of your health problem really tells the judge nothing. What
the judge needs to know is the severity of your pain and other symptoms.
Estimate the Intensity of Your Symptoms
You may be asked if your pain and other symptoms vary in intensity. If so, do your best to
describe how your pain and other symptoms vary in intensity during a usual day or over a
usual week. Often it is best to use the 1 to 10 scale sometimes used by therapists and
doctors. On this scale 1 is essentially no pain and 10 is the worst pain you've ever had.
Be sure you understand this scale and use it correctly without exaggerating. Think about
the worst pain you ever had. Did it cause you to go to the emergency room? Did you lie in
your bed writhing in pain, finding it difficult to get up even to go to the bathroom? Did
it cause you to roll up into a fetal position? These are the images that the judge will
have about what it means to have pain at a 10 level.
Estimate of Limitations
If a friend asks you how far you can walk, you probably start thinking of places you have
walked recently, how you felt when you got there, whether you had to stop and rest along
the way, and so forth. You are likely to answer your friend's question by giving one or
more examples of walking someplace recently. If the judge asks this question, answer it
the same way. Be as detailed as possible.
Also, be aware that there is a built in ambiguity in a judge's question concerning how
long you can stand, how much you can lift, how far you can walk, and so forth. Judges
always ask the question just that way: "How long can you stand?" The question
should not be interpreted to mean, "How long can you stand before you are in so much pain
that you must go home and go to bed?" What the judge needs to know, of course, is how long
you can stand in a work situation where you must stand for a while, are allowed to sit
down, and then must stand again.