Most people get nervous when they have to go to court, and for good reason: no one goes to court because everything is going perfectly in their life. Fortunately, going to your Social Security disability hearing does not have to be a scary event if you know what to expect.
Applicants for SSI and SSDI benefits who have been denied twice, one at the initial level and again at the reconsideration level, can file an appeal to the Office of Hearing Operations (OHO) (formerly known as ODAR). The judges at OHO are called Administrative Law Judges (ALJs). Hearings in front of ALJs are not as formal or adversarial as the typical civil or criminal case you see portrayed on television.
At the Hearing
At an ALJ hearing, there will be the judge, you, your attorney or representative, the court reporter, and at least one expert witness. Typically, the ALJ will provide a vocational expert, and sometimes a medical expert. You are also allowed to bring witnesses. ALJ hearings last from about 15 minutes to an hour, and can be done remotely if you live too far away to attend an in-person hearing.
At the start of the hearing, the court reporter will swear in you and any witnesses. After you are sworn in, the ALJ will review a summary of the case, and you and/or your attorney can speak about the case. You will then have a chance to testify. The judge will usually ask you about your past work and your limitations, as will your attorney. Then the ALJ and your attorney will ask the vocational expert hypothetical questions about what jobs someone with your conditions and limitations could do. If there is a medical expert in your case, the ALJ and your attorney will then ask him or her questions about your conditions and what limitations may result. Any witnesses you brought to testify about your limitations will also testify. At the end, you and/or your attorney will have the opportunity to speak again about why your case should be approved.
After the Hearing
You will not get a decision from the ALJ right away. How long it takes to get the ALJ decision depends on your area, and how big the backlog is. However, expect it to take a month or more.
If the ALJ denies your case, you will be sent a Notice of Denial. This notice will contain instructions on how to appeal to the Appeals Council (AC). You must file an appeal to the AC 60 days after you receive the hearing notice. [Check back next week for the next installment of Social Security Secrets, where we will discuss what happens at the AC.]
If your disability claim was approved, a SSA representative at your local SSA office will review your file to ensure you have not returned to work at the substantial gainful activity (SGA) level. If you have, your claim may be denied. If you have not, you will receive a Notice of Award letter telling you that you were approved, and the date on which the judge found your disability began – your established onset date. This date is important because it determines the date when you are eligible to begin receiving payments. For example, if you were approved in April 2018 and your established onset date was January 2016, you will receive a check for the amount of your monthly payments from January 2016 – April 2018.
You will then start receiving monthly payments. If you were approved for SSDI only, you should start receiving your monthly payments in a month. If you were approved for SSI only, you should see your payments start in a few months. If you were approved for both, there may be a delay in getting your lump sum back payment because of calculations SSA has to do pertaining to SSI income and resources limits.
If you are denied at the ALJ level, you can appeal to the Social Security Appeals Council. However, once you get to the Appeals Council the focus of your case completely changes. Stay tuned next week for our next installment of The Social Security Secrets to read more about what happens at the next level of appeal.