What to Expect at a Disability Hearing in Pennsylvania or New Jersey

If you have an upcoming Social Security Disability hearing in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, it means that you have been denied both initially and on Reconsideration.  Don’t be alarmed! Your greatest chance of success comes at this level.  Statistically, more people are granted benefits at the hearing level than at any of step in the process.  This will address the most common issues and questions that people have concerning a Social Security Disability hearing.

Should I Have Counsel Representing Me During the Social Security Disability Process?

The answer is a resounding yes!  While not required, your chances of success are much greater when represented by an attorney.  An experienced Social Security attorney provides all the appropriate assistance in providing you the best chance for success.  He/she should help accumulate all of your medical records, have specialized forms to be completed by your physicians and submit all records to the Social Security Administration within 5 days prior to your hearing date.  Most importantly, your disability attorney will provide you guidance for what to expect at a hearing and to help you prepare and identify the most important issues to be presented in your case.  All attorneys work on a contingency basis which means that they are not paid unless you recover benefits.  All fees for attorneys must be approved by the Social Security Administration.

The Hearing Process

Hearings are typically brief.  The hearing rarely exceeds 60 minutes in totality.  Initially, counsel will provide a brief opening statement summarizing the theory behind your case and thereafter questions will be asked by both the ALJ as well as your disability attorney.  Social Security hearings are private in nature and there are slight differences depending upon the temperament of the particular Administrative Law Judge who hears your case as well as the nature of your impairments.  An Administrative Law Judge is assigned to make a determination and will be hearing your case de novo.  De novo means he or she will be deciding your case as if there was never a prior determination rendered.  He is an independent fact finder and is not bound by the prior denials issued by the Social Security Administration.  You will be providing testimony as to your prior work history as well as the nature of your disability, treatment related to the disability, limitations caused by your impairments as well as providing a description as to your daily activities.  The purpose of the hearing is for an Administrative Law Judge to not only evaluate the medical evidence of record, but to hear your testimony and assess your credibility.  Therefore, to avoid the appearance of exaggeration, it is important to never use words such as “always” or “never”.  Furthermore, it is helpful to provide as many examples as possible as to how your disability may affect your activities of daily living and, more importantly, how it might affect your ability to perform gainful employment on a regular and sustained basis.  For example, someone with severe arthritis might describe difficulties buttoning his or her shirt, opening a jar, etc.  If someone suffered with extreme gastrointestinal issues, they may need frequent bathroom breaks that would cause a Claimant to be off task a significant portion of the day making employability impossible.  It is important that all elements of your potential disability and the limitations imposed therefrom be discussed at the time of your hearing.  Specifically answer the questions that are asked.  Try to stay on topic and avoid digressing into irrelevant and unresponsive topics.  This is especially important due to the brevity of most hearings.  Most importantly, be honest and descriptive but be on topic.

Vocational Expert and Medical Expert

At most Social Security hearings there is also a Vocational Expert who is present who will give an opinion on the nature of your prior work, the level of exertion and skill in which it is typically performed in the national economy and will also give an opinion as to your ability to perform gainful activity despite the limitations that your conditions pose.   His questions are often guided by hypotheticals presented by both the Administrative Law Judge and your counsel as well as your testimony and the medical evidence of record.  In some instances, the Administrative Law Judge will also have a Medical Expert available to testify if he believes that the nature of your condition is so unusual that he needs the guidance of a medical professional to help provide clarification.  However, in most cases, there is not a Medical Expert present at the hearing.  The only additional parties that may potentially be present are witnesses who are familiar with your condition.  Witnesses are most helpful in situations where the Claimant cannot adequately describe the nature of his/her impairments such as certain types of mental health issues or seizure disorders, etc.  However, since there are time restrictions, Administrative Law Judges are hesitant to have witness testimony that is mostly corroborative in nature.

Process During Covid-19

The nature of Social Security practice has been greatly impacted by COVID-19.  Due to pandemic conditions, all hearings are now conducted telephonically.  However, in large part, the hearing mirrors that of an in-person hearing.   Most likely, in-person hearings will resume in 2021.

Decision/what Happens if I Am Denied

You will receive a formal, written Decision usually within 30 – 90 days following your hearing.  At that point, the Decision should be reviewed with your attorney.  If you are not successful at this stage, a request for Appeals Council review may be taken and if the Appeals Council denies review, your final appeal stage comes at the Federal Court level.  This will not involve new testimony but will be strictly based on written submissions by both your counsel as well as counsel for the Social Security Administration.  A Federal Judge or Magistrate will either approve or deny your claim or remand it back to the Administrative Law Judge for a new hearing.  In certain instances, you may also file a new application if you have a worsening or new condition.

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