Learn how administrative law judges are trained by Social Security to conduct disability hearings and to decide if you are disabled under the law.

What is an administrative law judge?

An administrative law judge (ALJ for short) is an official hired by the Social Security Administration to conduct Social Security hearings including hearings to determine whether an individual is disabled as defined by Social Security law. 

What is a Social Security Disability hearing, and what can I expect when I request a disability hearing?

A Social Security Disability hearing is the second appeal that you can file within the Social Security Administration’s appeal system. The first level of appeal is a Request for Reconsideration. A request for hearing follows a reconsideration denial or an only partially favorable reconsideration decision. 

When and Where is a Social Security Disability Hearing Held

Hearings are usually held in person within seventy-five miles of your home. However, if you agree, your hearing might be held by video conferencing. Due to the large number of hearings filed, you will likely have to wait over a year for your hearing. When your hearing date comes up, the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, which is the Social Security hearing office, will send you notification of the hearing date twenty days in advance.

How a Disability Hearing Is Different from a Reconsideration

Hearings differ from reconsideration reviews in one very important way: you get to talk to, see, and be seen by, the decision maker. This is your chance to give voice to your claim. At a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge literally hears your case. You and your attorney can not only tell the judge about your limitations but, with some illnesses, the judge can also see your limitations. Additionally, you or your attorney can submit depositions, call and question witnesses, such as your doctors, your most recent employer, and your family and friends who have direct knowledge of your limitations. You or your attorney can also cross examine witnesses that the judge may call, such as any vocational and medical experts.

Attorney Representation for the Hearing

A Social Security Disability hearing is a legal proceeding. Accordingly, it is important to have someone who is experienced in hearing procedures with you at the hearing. In addition to preparing your case for review by the Administrative Law Judge, who’s called an ALJ for short, your lawyer will explain the hearing procedure to you, orient you to the judge, and give you tips on how to participate appropriately in the hearing. He can also help you question any witnesses the ALJ may have requested. And, it is always nice not to go into unknown territory alone.

Another benefit of having an attorney is that you may not have to attend an actual hearing. Instead, depending on the facts of your claim, your attorney may request an “on-the-record” decision. This means that the lawyer writes up a summary of the information in your claim file and makes a written argument for your approval. The Administrative Law Judge then reviews the on-the-record request and, if he can approve your claim, he will go ahead with a decision. If that happens, you don’t have to go to court! If the judge does not approve your claim on the record, you will still get your hearing.

For more information about the Social Security Disability hearing process, you may find it helpful to review the rest of our articles about SSD hearings.

What If the ALJ Denies My Disability Claim?

If your claim is denied at the Social Security Disability hearing, you can request review of the denial by the Appeals Council. 

The Disability Hearing Duties of an Administrative Law Judge

Administrative law judges, review case files before your hearing, listen to claim arguments made by you or your attorney and listen to testimony at your hearing. They decide whether to approve or deny claims, usually after the hearing; although they may make a “bench” decision to approve your claim at the hearing. After the hearing, the judge must write a written determination and then review and sign the approval or denial letter that is written up off the determination.

The Background and Training of Administrative Law Judges

Almost all ALJs are attorneys. Applicants for administrative law judge positions go through a very intensive and careful selection process that includes testing and panel interviews. Once they are selected, the new judges receive extensive training in a six-week-long course of study that includes Social Security law, regulations, and hearing procedures.

How to Answer Hearing Questions

If you have an attorney who is representing you at your Social Security Disability hearing, your attorney will present your case. Even so, the Administrative Law Judge will ask questions that he or she will want you to answer yourself.

Here are some “do’s:” The best way to answer questions at a hearing is to answer honestly and completely. At the same time, it’s important to limit your answer to the specific question that has been asked without adding information about related or unrelated topics. Third, listen carefully to the question and if you don’t understand it, ask to have it explained by saying, “I am not sure I understand what you are asking.” Similarly, if you have a lapse in attention, do ask to have the question, or anything else you missed, repeated.

And now, here are some “don’ts:” Be careful not to exaggerate your problems and avoid using generalities like “all the time”, “always,” and “never” unless they are really true. It helps to think about whether your symptoms are really most of the time or two to three times a day, rather than always. Similarly, avoid saying that your health or functioning has not improved at all when it has improved. 

You can always qualify your statement by saying the improvement is not enough to work or work regularly. Another pitfall at a hearing occurs when, without thinking, you turn your desire to work into a statement, such as “I think I could work if I could find the right job,” which may give an incorrect impression of your ability to consistently perform work day in and day out.

Our Best Tip for Your Social Security Disability Hearing

These are all good tips, but the best tip is to have a Social Security lawyer represent you at your Social Security Disability hearing. Your attorney will prepare you for the hearing, including coaching you in best practices for answering questions, alerting you to questions that are likely to be asked so that you can think about them in advance, and advising you of court protocol.