“Do I HAVE to Go To a Hearing?”

istock_2361825XSmallThis is one of the most common questions clients ask. And many times, the answer is yes. A majority of applicants are denied Social Security Disability on their first try. Some are approved after their first appeal (known as the reconsideration stage). But a far greater number are awarded benefits after they appeal a second time, which is the same as requesting a hearing in front of an administrative law judge.

Of course, all clients hope they will be approved before that. Even after we request a hearing, many ask if they must attend or if their attorney can go in their place. The idea of a hearing calls up images of intimidating courtooms  and being badgered by a judge, like on courtroom reality TV shows. But the actual setting is much less scary than that.

Hearing rooms are generally smaller than a traditional courtroom, and there are no boxes for witnesses or a jury. The ALJ sits at the front and a hearing monitor also is present. The claimant and their attorney (or whoever represents them, if anyone) sits at a table facing the ALJ. If the hearing office has arranged for a medical or vocational expert to provide information, those individuals also will be present. It’s their job to  explain the claimant’s health conditions and what jobs the person may or may not be able to perform. In some cases, the attorney might have requested that a friend or family member also be allowed to speak at the hearing.

In our area, hearings take place in Valparaiso and the Miller section of Gary for Indiana residents and in Orland Park, Chicago, Oak Brook and Evanston for Illinois residents. The location is usually based on a claimant’s address. Our Munster law office also is equipped to have video hearings in the conference room in our Annex Building. This can be convenient for clients who live in the area and who would find it difficult to travel to one of the hearing offices.

But wait — a VIDEO hearing? Wouldn’t it be better for the ALJ to see me in person to get a better idea of how bad my conditions are?

Good question! Actually, in most cases, a video teleconference (VTC) works just fine and doesn’t decrease  your chances of getting benefits. Many hearings that take place in the hearing offices are VTCs. This means you and the attorney are in the hearing room but that the ALJ appears on a video screen (and usually any experts that were called in, although sometimes the experts give their testimony via phone). You, the ALJ and your attorney all can see and hear each other just as if you were all in the same room.

This means the ALJ can be anywhere in the country. We have participated in hearings with ALJs in Arizona, Michigan and Baltimore, to name just a few. Because all claimant records are stored electronically, all ALJs have access to the facts of your case. According to Social Security, VTCs help keep the scheduling backlog from getting even longer and reduces the cost to the government.

During a hearing, the ALJ will ask questions of the claimant and the experts. The attorney will be allowed to ask questions and rebut statements as well. All you, as the claimant, needs to do is answer the questions to the best of your ability.  By the time we go to a hearing with a client, our office has already done all the research necessary to back up your claim.

So don’t let the thought of a hearing scare you away from trying to obtain benefits. Remember, if you’re our client, you won’t be in this alone!