“You can’t handle the truth!” – A Few Good Men
“If we are to have faith in justice, we need only to believe in ourselves. And ACT with justice. See, I believe there is justice in our hearts.” – The Verdict
“Uh . . . everything that guy just said is bull***.” – My Cousin Vinny
If you haven’t seen any of these movies for yourself, you have at least heard the quotes. These are some of the most popular legal movies of our time and they, along with legal television shows (Suits, Law & Order, The Goodwife, Bost Legal, just to name a few) have helped to shape how most people view the legal system. Unfortunately, these dramatic portrayals have heavily influenced how individuals view every kind of legal process, no matter the type of case or issue.
If you are facing a hearing on your claim for Social Security disability benefits, you should note that your hearing will look nothing like what you see of the legal system on television. Your disability claim isn’t a trial, with one side pitted against the other. Your hearing is designed to be an impartial, factfinding process. If you find yourself yelling “you can’t handle the truth!” during your disability hearing, then something has probably gone horribly wrong. Most Social Security disability claimants start with no idea what to expect at a disability hearing. My hope today is to dispel some myths and give you a practical overview of the process.
First of all, your disability hearing will have a much smaller cast of characters. The following individuals will most likely be the only in attendance at your hearing: an administrative law judge, the judge’s assistant, a vocational expert, and your attorney or representative (should you choose to hire one). In some cases there may also be a medical expert. While witnesses are allowed, they are needed in only some cases. Most notably, there is no jury – the decision on your claim rests solely in the hands of the judge.
Second of all, your disability hearing will be informal – more of a conversation than anything else. I tell all of my clients to think of the hearing as an opportunity to finally tell their story. Up until the hearing, Social Security is relying on treatment notes from your physicians, operative reports, and maybe some imaging reports as well. What Social Security is missing is the human element – the face behind the records. While you will be sworn in and giving your testimony under oath (with a hearing assistant making an audio recording of the process), you will be answering questions only you know the answer to and in an informal, conversational manner. Your attorney and the administrative law judge will ask you questions about your physical and/or mental conditions. In contrast to the medical jargon in your records, the judge wants to know how your conditions impact your ability to function on a day-to-day basis. You will be asked the simplest of questions – for example, how do you spend your typical day? Do your conditions cause you to have good days and bad days? What do your bad days look like, etc.?
At the end of your testimony, the judge will ask questions of the vocational expert in attendance. A vocational expert is a “job” expert. The judge asks questions of the vocational expert in the form of “hypotheticals.” The vocational expert’s purpose is to help the judge understand what kind of work you have done in the past, whether you can still perform that work, and whether there is any other type of work that you could do. His or her answers will be based solely on the hypotheticals proposed by both the administrative law judge and your attorney/representative.
Third, as there is no jury, there is no dramatic reading of a verdict at the conclusion of your hearing. While the judge has the ability to announce a decision on your claim at the conclusion of the hearing, this is not all that common. More often than not, you will walk away from the hearing not knowing whether or not your claim has been approved. Then begins the process of waiting, more often than not for a few more months, for a written decision to arrive in the mail.
So before you walk into your hearing, follow the advice of your attorney or representative. Take a deep breath. Tell your story.
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